Sat, 26 Sep 2020

The Week In Russia: Famous Last Words

RFE
07 Dec 2019, 04:15 GMT+10

Undeniably, President Vladimir Putin's era has been marked and marred by a number of recurring events: terror attacks, deadly disasters in which the human toll has been exacerbated by human error, often committed by officials of the Russian state, and -- less lethal but also defining -- politically charged trials.

While Putin came to power at the turn of the 21st century, it would be tough to pinpoint a Trial Of The Century so far, one-fifth of the way in. After all, two of the most prominent Russians to be tried since 2000, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Aleksei Navalny, have been tried twice -- and convicted twice -- on charges they contend were trumped up with the goal of protecting Putin and his system of rule.

Over 20 years in power as president or prime minister, Putin has strengthened Kremlin control over electoral politics, squeezing liberal opposition figures out of parliament -- a place one of his allies, policeman-turned-politician Boris Gryzlov, said when he was head of the State Duma, the lower house, was no place for "political battles."

In that oxygen-poor atmosphere, one arena where political battles are fought -- or at least, where political statements can be made with reasonable expectation that they will be heard -- is the courts.

In contrast to many other countries, several opposition politicians in Russia have spent time behind bars, in courtrooms as defendants, or both -- some before they became politicians, others after.

The most prominent example may be Navalny, who was given suspended sentences following both convictions, and as a result has not served any long term in prison -- but who has spent hundreds of days in jail for what courts have deemed administrative offenses, mainly linked to the street protests he has organized.

The Verdict

Navalny and his supporters say he has avoided prison because Putin is afraid to put him there, lest he become a martyr. They cite the jaw-dropping flip-flop that unfolded after Navalny's first conviction, in 2013, when he was initially handed a five-year prison term -- but got a reprieve after thousands of people protested the ruling near the Kremlin, and ended up with a suspended sentence on appeal.

The same thing may have happened with Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old political science student and video blogger whose trial this fall was one of several stemming from the state crackdown on protests in July and August over decisions by officials to bar a raft of independent and opposition candidates from the ballot in the September elections for the Moscow City Duma.

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