Two years ago, the blogger became a symbol of politics in the digital age.
For many, the millions on the streets of the Arab World were driven on by thousands of anonymous Twitter users. Back then, pundits told us that politics would be henceforth diffuse, decentralised and driven by the masses, and not by great men or women.
In 2013 those predictions – whether delivered as panegyrics or jeremiads – now seem to be premature, if not false. Today, the cyber era has given rise to its first major leaders. And they are dissidents, whistleblowers or leakers.
Recent weeks have seen the focus placed on the United States and its surveillance activities. A 30-year old security contractor, Edward Snowden, touched down at Moscow Airport and sought political asylum. Snowden has become an icon for anti-American activism in Europe and elsewhere.
Yet Snowden has received a reticent reception from Russian president Vladimir Putin. After all, the Russian leader has his own political troubles with cyber activists.
This weekend, Russian activist Alexei Anatolievich Navalny has taken his place beside Snowden as a global figurehead of anti-government dissent. A court’s attempted imprisonment of the 37-year old anti-corruption activist for embezzlement has prompted a sudden revival of the Russian opposition.
Days of frantic protests and political confusion in the Russian capital began with Navalny’s conviction on fraud charges late last week.
Many European media outlets have interpreted the verdict as politically motivated: Navalny is by far the Russian opposition’s most popular leader. And he has described Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, as a band of “thieves and swindlers”.
It is those accusations that apparently boomeranged back on Navalny last week. A court in Kirov, a tiny region in central Russia, found he swindled state property, as it convicted him to five years in a penal colony.
“Much indicates that [the case]is yet another example of state-orchestrated punitive justice, whose aim is to get unpopular people out of the way,” commented Swiss paper Neuer Zürchner Zeitung after the verdict was announced.
“A [statement by]a member of the investigative committee, who were reporting directly to Vladimir Putin, represented the high point of bureaucratic cynicism: He publically conceded that there was a connection between Navalny’s political activities and the process.”
So far, so familiar in Russia, where Putin opponents – from lowly punk band Pussy Riot to erstwhile Kremlin power player Mikhail Khodorkovsky – have ended up under lock and key after public trials.
But last week, the Russian public rose up in anger at the court verdict, says the English language Moscow Times: “The first reaction to the sentence was a tumble on the Russian stock markets,” the paper reports. “The Russian internet was deluged by thousands of angry posts, and by evening tens of thousands of demonstrators took the streets in Moscow, St Petersburg and 21 other Russian cities.”
“In Moscow, thousands of people gathered at a central intersection by the Kremlin …They chanted slogans and plastered the first floor of the State Duma with pro-Navalny stickers.”
And then – in what the Moscow Times describes as a “milestone for democracy in Russia” – the Kirov court had a rethink. Prosecutors petitioned for a stay on the verdict they themselves had been seeking. For now, Navalny is free. The court will demur from enforcing the verdict until a suitable point in time, probably after the appeal, agencies are reporting.
And so, on Saturday, Navalny returned to Moscow’s Yaroslavl Station, where he was showered by flowers and overwhelmed by chanting supporters, reported a correspondent for French radio service RFI: “After the despair that followed the condemnation and arrest of Navalny on Thursday, and the joy of this release on Saturday this moment is about euphoria,” the reporter wrote on Saturday.
“In all their enthusiasm, certain bloggers who had turned up to await their hero ventured a comparison – with the triumphant return from [internal]exile of [physicist, Soviet dissident] and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov to this station in 1986."
The anti-Putin blogger told waiting journalists that he would “triumph” in attempts to be elected Moscow’s mayor in September. But many doubt that Navelny’s renewed optimism – or the euphoria of his supporters – will really translate into substantial democracy in Russia.
“It’s likely that the decision to release Navalny and his co-defendant Piotr Ofitserov is aimed at lowering tensions in the country,” says Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
“Navalny will now confront the outgoing mayor Sergei Sobyanin [in those elections]. And [Sobyanin], a Putinite who has been in office for three years, does not seem particularly troubled by his rival.” Indeed, it is in the Moscow mayor’s interest to ensure his re-election seems free and fair, according to opposition activist Kseniya Sobchak, quoted in the Spanish daily El País. Sobchak describes Navalny’s sentence and subsequent release as the result of a struggle. This conflict pitted those determined to down a challenger to Putin against those with an interest in him running in September’s poll, the activist and it-girl concludes.
“After these series of events, it is clear that there’s no one – including Putin – who’s completely in control of the situation,” she writes.
Navalny’s conviction came just weeks after another profile trial – this one of a dead man, fellow lawyer Sergei Magnisky. Magnisky died in custody after exposing a group of corrupt Russian interior ministry functionaries who allegedly collaborated with mafiosi to rob Russian taxpayers of 230 million US dollars. In early July, a Russian court found that it was Magnitsky himself who had committed tax fraud.
Magnitsky and Navalny were both anti-corruption whistleblowers. Yet Magnitsky’s conviction did not create the public outrage in Russia that followed Navalny’s guilty verdict. This, arguably, shows that today’s cyber whistleblowers are able to mobilise a broader public than their low-tech forebears. But whether this new generation of blogger-activists have mass public support in Russia remains untested. September’s Moscow mayoral race will indicate whether Alexei Anatolievich can really knock Putin from his perch.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.