Why did the Kremlin release Russian opposition activist Navalny?

Alexei Navalny's surprise release on bail may indicate government uncertainty, but others believe the move was more calculated.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, speaks to the media as he was released in a courtroom in Kirov, Russia, on Friday. Mr. Navalny was released from custody less than 24 hours after he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison. The release came after a surprise request by prosecutors, who said that because Navalny is a candidate in this falls Moscow mayoral race keeping him in custody would deny him his right to seek election.

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The day after Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny's conviction sent thousands of Russians into the streets in protest, he was unexpectedly released on bail, likely indicating Kremlin uncertainty about how to prevent his case from becoming a fresh rallying point for the opposition.

Mr. Navalny and his supporters slammed his five-year prison sentence on embezzlement charges as a politically motivated ruling intended to silence the top government critic and activist, who was one of the central organizers of mass protests against President Vladimir Putin in December 2011.

He was convicted of embezzling 16 million rubles ($494,000) from a timber firm while advising the regional governor of Kirov in 2009, according to Reuters. He never pleaded guilty to the charges.

Even more unusual than the release on bail was the source of the request – according to Reuters, it came from the prosecution, indicating the Kremlin's concern about a revival of mass demonstrations. Navalny hailed the ruling as a victory for "people power."

"I am very grateful to all the people who supported us, all the people who went to (protest in Moscow's) Manezh Square and other squares," the 37-year-old said, rushing across the court to hug his wife after he was released from a glass courtroom cage.

"We understand perfectly well what has happened now. It's an absolutely unique phenomenon in Russian justice," he said in the court in Kirov, an industrial city 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow.

According to a separate Reuters piece, Navalny has "grasped a mood change in Russia among the urban youth and growing middle class" and "embodies the rebellious generation of young Russians who have taken to the streets to try to force out President Vladimir Putin."

Tall, clean-cut, confident and articulate, Navalny has more potential than any other opposition leader to at least rattle, if not directly challenge, Putin.

Thursday's verdict was seen by many as a sign that the president himself sees him as a threat, even though opinion polls suggest his appeal does not go far beyond the big cities. 

"Navalny's sentence looks less like punishment than an attempt to isolate him from society and the electoral process," declared former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin ally respected by many Western economists and politicians.

Thousands turned out in Moscow and other cities, including St. Petersburg, after the ruling was handed down yesterday. About 200 were arrested by police in Moscow, although they were all released today.

But according to The Washington Post, Navalny's release had less to do with the protests and more to do with making sure Navalny remains on the mayoral ballot so that a victory by current mayor Sergei Sobyanin has legitimacy. The Post describes authorities in Moscow as "intent" on keeping Navalny in the race and "confident" that Mr. Sobyanin will win.

The aim would be to give Sobyanin a legitimate victory in the heart of Russia’s opposition movement.

That calculation — more than the street protests — appears to have been the deciding factor in the prosecutors’ motion.

One of Navalny’s closest associates, Leonid Volkov, had said after Thursday’s sentencing that if Navalny goes to prison he will drop out of the mayoral race. That may have supplied the pressure needed to get him freed.

According to the Post, Navalny must remain in Moscow for the entirety of the appeal period, which typically lasts about six weeks, although Russian news outlet RIA Novosti reports that the appeal process lasts only 10 days and his prison sentence will be implemented then, unless Navalny issues another appeal.

The local office of Russia's general prosecutor filed a complaint yesterday contesting the jailing, saying the country's criminal code did not permit it during the appeal period. The prosecutor's office is a different authority than the one that charged Navalny, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Co-defendant Petr Ofitserov, who received a four-year sentence yesterday, was also released. 

Navalny's sentence earned condemnation from the US and European Union, as well as comparisons to Soviet Russia's "show trials" from critics. Russian shares tumbled to their lowest point in more than a month in response.

RIA Novosti reports that Navalny said he had not yet decided whether to revive his bid for mayor of Moscow, which is holding elections in September. The activist registered as a candidate Wednesday, the day before his sentencing.

"I'm not a pet kitten or puppy who they have thrown out and then decided to release for a month before the election," he said. "I will make a decision with my campaign team after I get back to Moscow."

Navalny’s campaign manager Leonid Volkov said Thursday after the conviction was announced that Navalny would drop his bid to stand for mayor because “it is not an election; there is no point in taking part.”

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