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With court ruling, Kremlin moves to block political biggest threat: Navalny

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The ruling reinstating a guilty verdict for anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny effectively rules him out of next year's presidential race. But it may help him remain a viable Kremlin opponent.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (r.) and his former colleague Pyotr Ofitserov speak to journalists in the court in Kirov, Russia, Wednesday. A Russian court on Wednesday found Mr. Navalny guilty in the retrial of a 2013 fraud case, which disqualifies him as a candidate for president next year.
Sergei Bonurin/AP
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The legal odyssey of Russia's best-known opposition leader, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, has been mindbogglingly complicated, full of twists and turns.

Nevertheless, experts say, it has wound up with a simple and totally predictable political result. Thanks to a regional court's ruling Wednesday that upheld Mr. Navalny's embezzlement conviction and handed him a five-year suspended sentence, it will be almost impossible for him to run against President Vladmir Putin, or his anointed successor, in elections in March 2018.

That's significant because unlike much of Russia's fragmented and fractious opposition – especially the liberals who are associated in the public mind with the disastrous 1990s – Navalny seemed to be a new type of insurgent politician who could unite anti-Kremlin support among a wide range of Russians. He certainly demonstrated this when he was allowed to run for Moscow mayor in late 2013 against the Kremlin's choice, Sergei Sobyanin, and stunned the establishment by winning 27 percent of the vote.

"Navalny was able to consolidate all Moscow voters who were against the authorities in general and Sobyanin in particular," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics at Moscow's National Research University. "In Moscow, that's a lot of people. Not just liberals and people of the creative class, but many middle-class professionals and others who heard his anticorruption message."

Moreover, Navalny's conviction reveals a lot about how Mr. Putin's Russia works, by using the courts to weed and manicure Russia's heavily stage-managed political system.

A 'unique' guy

Already well known for his anticorruption crusade, Navalny came to political prominence amid mass street demonstrations against alleged fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections. He quickly took a leadership role, spent time in prison, and remained popular after the protest movement died down.

"He is unique as a guy who became a well-known politician in the absence of a public platform" or party, says Mr. Petrov. "It was his invention to take up the anticorruption battle," which he continues to do with regular exposés of the lavish lifestyles and dirty dealings of Russia's elite on his widely read blog and Twitter feed.

Navalny's conviction Wednesday seems to conclude a long-running affair that began with his trial and conviction for embezzling proceeds from timber sales while acting as an adviser to the governor of Kirov region in 2009. The case had been dismissed, but was revived in 2013 when he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, which was later reduced to a suspended sentence. But authorities permitted Navalny to run in the Moscow mayoral polls – analysts suggest in order to create the impression of competition for Sobyanin – in which he surprised with the strong showing that nearly forced Sobyanin into a runoff vote.

"It was one thing to let Navalny run in Moscow, but is it worth the risk to allow him to participate in the presidential elections?" asks Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow think tank.

Navalny appealed his sentence to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled a year ago that his trial had not been fair. Russia's Supreme Court subsequently overturned the 2013 conviction, which in Russia means the case goes back to the original court for review. Today's conviction closes that circle, and ensures that he will not be able to run in the upcoming presidential polls, barring a decision by the Supreme Court to allow that.

A fading star?

Most experts say that Navalny's popularity has been on the wane in any case, in part due to the surge in pro-Putin patriotism since the Ukraine crisis began about three years ago.

"A lot of people who supported Navalny in 2013 became inspired to support the annexation of Crimea and embraced Putin's leadership. The Kremlin no longer needs to create the impression of real political competition, indeed, it's against the idea," says Petrov. "As military chieftain, Putin should not be challenged or criticized. If Putin decides to run again, he should get overwhelming support."

Almost all opposition figures have lost appeal amid the political freeze of the past few years. "Navalny is not popular. When we ask about the level of trust to different politicians Putin has 56 percent, [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu has 23 percent, and Navalny has 0.5 percent," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia's only fully independent polling agency. "Asked who they would support in presidential elections, 61 percent of people say Putin. . . and less than 1 percent say Navalny."

But today's outcome may not be a terrible one for Navalny, still a young man, who keeps his credibility and status as the Kremlin's main threat intact.

"Navalny presents a difficult problem for the Kremlin," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "It's now absolutely clear to all foreigners that Navalny is a victim of the political regime, and there's no trying to convince them otherwise. In fact, he's just a pebble in Putin's shoe. But that sort of thing can be quite irritating, and might become a problem in future."

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