Democracy Lab

The Crusader Is a Convict

Russia’s leading oppositionist has been sentenced to five years in jail. Can the protest movement go on?

MOSCOW — Russian opposition activists are furious about today's court decision to send young lawyer Alexey Navalny to a penal colony for five years. Everybody in the opposition agrees that he's a charismatic and popular figure, and many had even hoped to see him become president one day. With Navalny in jail, the anti-Putin opposition finds itself forced to regroup and plan a new strategy. Fewer than two hours after the handcuffed Navalny was escorted from the courtroom, 10,000 Facebook users confirmed their intentions to demonstrate against his arrest at a non-sanctioned rally on Manezh Square this evening, right by the wall of the Kremlin.

Environmental movement leader Yevgenia Chirikova has marched with Navalny at dozens of street rallies. "This is the end of Putin's stupid power," she says. "The Kremlin has never learned the lessons of history." She compares Navalny to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. "By throwing such a popular opposition leader behind bars they gave him a bigger rating and lost their own popularity. Most important is not to cry and not to panic now!" Chirikova's relative optimism is characteristic of many members of the opposition. But the majority of Russians seem indifferent. 

Sergei, my taxi driver, turned down the radio when I asked him about the trial. "Oh, I'm not so sure about this Navalny guy. So he stirred up the dirt -- and guess what happened." By "dirt," he was referring to Navalny's slogans condemning Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party, which Navalny so memorably rechristened as "the party of crooks and thieves." Thousands of protesters chanted Navalny's words on streets and squares all across the country during the big anti-government protests last year. But even as Sergei was sharing his views, the man who was the driving force behind the protest movement stood in the courtroom, listening to his "guilty" verdict. 

I looked at Sergei: a tall, ruddy-cheeked, well-dressed young man with a golden suntan. He was keener to chat about his recent trip to Odessa than to talk about "lousy and "filthy" politics. "Protests can't change anything," he told me -- a view common to the overwhelming majority of Russians. "Everybody steals, we all give bribes, and Navalny is no angel."

The authorities have arrested a string of dissidents this year, disillusioning many of Sergei's counterparts. A recent survey [in Russian] by the Levada Center, the respected pollster, showed that 81 percent of respondents have no intention of participating any in protests. Only 11 percent still had the courage to come out against the authorities despite a high risk of getting clubbed or detained. 

Navalny's popularity has soared over the course of the past year. "I want to change the way the country is run," he declared in an interview not long before the trial. "I want to make it so 140 million people live normally, in a European country." He also took the occasion to reveal his presidential ambitions, and, as always, many took him at his word. In the past, it's been enough for Navalny to post a single tweet in order for thousands to answer his call. 

On the night of Vladimir Putin's inauguration, Navalny suggested that Muscovites should "take a walk" against Putin in downtown Moscow. Hundreds complied. 

The walks eventually turned into a long-term Occupy movement, a camp for the opposition to share ideas, read poetry, sing, and even perform plays. Many other "walks" followed; Navalny's charisma appealed to hundreds of thousands. His approval rating rose from 6 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in March 2013, much to the chagrin of those he called "crooks." 

Young volunteers are recreating his strategy. Until recently, their leader Navalny was the second-most popular candidate in Moscow's mayoral race. Now he's a convict. That means they have to figure out how to organize support for the prisoner. "I'm trying not to think, not to lose my motivation," 20-year old Galina Koposova said. She fainted when she heard Navalny's verdict, but was on her feet again just an hour later. Like her hero, she's not the type to give up just because she's been knocked off her balance.

(Note: Navalny has now been freed on bail pending appeal -- something that doesn't happen in Russia very often. Some are speculating that the protests by his supporters may have had something to do with it.)


Democracy Lab

The Phantom of the Airport

Looking for Mr. Snowden.

MOSCOW — The petite blond woman next to me looked shocked: "What's going on, do you know?" She pointed at the crowd of several dozen reporters with furry microphones, cameras, and aluminum stairs, yelling at policemen. The journalists were crowded around a tiny spot by the wall in Terminal F of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. I explained that, after three weeks of hiding in the transit zone, Edward Snowden had invited a group of human rights activists and lawyers to talk about his potential asylum in Russia and that, at that very moment, the invited experts were walking through a door on the other side of the crowd. The woman didn't know who Snowden was or why he had to live in the transit zone for three weeks. "Total madness," she whispered. She was right, of course.

Just a few minutes before our encounter, reporters had pounced on the group of visitors that was about to walk in for their parley with Snowden. "What do you think he'll say?" one reporter asked Tatyana Lokshina, from the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "I'm not sure," she said. "I'm not a fortuneteller."  

Lokshina sounded tired. She'd been answering the same question all day long, nonstop, on both of her cell phones, in front of cameras, and into microphones stuck in her face. For days now, journalists have been hunting Snowden's ghost around the airport. Some camped out in Burger King, where they watched men in suits buying burgers. Others went so far as to purchase tickets to Cuba in hopes of interviewing Snowden on the plane.

And finally, today, the moment came. Snowden sent emails to Russian human rights defenders, lawyers, and even a Duma deputy. (It wasn't clear who drew up the list for him -- several of the invitees are rarely quoted in the Western press.) The email address he used, as well as the text of his letter, were immediately published and republished on Facebook. Dozens of reporters tried to get a response, but he wasn't ready to meet with them, not yet.

Minutes before the meeting scheduled at 5 pm, a young man in a dark blue suit appeared. He quietly raised a piece of paper with "G-9" mysteriously written on it. The "G-9" apparently didn't stand for anything; it was a code, meant to attract the attention of those who were invited. The activists and lawyers chosen to see Snowden followed the man, like a group of tourists or kindergarteners, valiantly pushing their way through crowds of reporters. It was totally surreal.

The airport continued to hum along, going about its regular business. Passengers strolled past the crowd of sweaty, aggressive reporters who were waiting for Snowden's visitors to come back and relate what he had to say. When they finally emerged, though, no one was much the wiser. "Snowden looked pale and nervous about his safety," said Sergei Nikitin, the director of Amnesty International's Moscow office. "He didn't want us to take any pictures of him. But I don't think he was under pressure from the [Russian] intelligence services."(Along the way, of course, a few interesting tidbits did make their way out. We learned, for example, that Snowden has decided to apply for "temporary political asylum" in Russia.)

Several reporters decided to stay in the airport until the last 1 AM train to the city, hoping that Snowden would answer their emails and meet with them somewhere in a quiet corner of the airport. We don't know how long he's planning to stay there. As Nikitin observed, "he didn't mind loud airport announcements. He must be used to them by now."