As the Russian economy shows the early signs of what could be a protracted recession, there are signs in Moscow that President Vladimir Putin’s government is becoming increasingly concerned with public discontent, and more eager to suppress it.
On Tuesday, a court announced that it had found brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny guilty of embezzling money from a French firm doing business in Russia. The prosecution was widely seen as political in nature, because Alexei Navalny is a prominent anti-corruption activist and has regularly stirred up opposition to the existing Russian power structure and to Putin in particular.
“The guilty verdict delivered today, Tuesday 30 December, by the Zamoskvoretsky Court against Alexey Navalny and his brother Oleg Navalny appears to be politically motivated,” the European Union said in a statement released to the press.
“The charges against them have not been substantiated during the trial,” the statement continued. “With the exception of a few selected representatives of the media, no public and international observers were allowed into the court building for the reading of the verdict. The EU stresses the importance of judicial decisions to be free from political interference, independent, and in full compliance with the rule of law.”
According to the Guardian newspaper, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another Putin opponent who spent 10 years in jail under dubious circumstances, released a statement saying he was “not even surprised that Putin and his entourage are capable of vile tricks, deception, forgery and manipulation. They are not capable of anything else.”
The court was not expected to rule in the case for weeks, but on Tuesday, with the ruble falling in value against international benchmark currencies and the price of oil, on which the Russian economy relies, also falling, the decision was brought unexpectedly forward.
Also unexpected was the sentencing. Although both men were declared guilty, Alexei Navalny was given a suspended sentence, while his brother Oleg was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in a penal colony.
The decision prevents Navalny from being cast as a political prisoner – something that might ultimately increase his influence. In addition, by imprisoning his brother, who has never been part of the opposition movement, the Kremlin would appear to have a degree of leverage over Navalny that it did not possess before.
In the aftermath of the verdict, thousands of protesters congregated near Red Square. Navalny broke his house arrest in an effort to join the protest, but was apprehended by Russian police as he left the metro, and returned under guard to his apartment, where he remained under house arrest. An estimated 100 protesters were arrested.
The decision in the Navalnys’ case came the same day that oil prices hit their lowest point in more than five years. Oil is Russia’s principal export, and its fall from well over $100 per barrel to less than $60 over the course of the year has put enormous pressure on the Kremlin.
Falling oil prices in combination with international sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in the Spring and its continued support of violent uprisings in eastern Ukraine have combined to severely damage the Russian ruble, which has lost half its value against major world currencies in just a few months.
As ordinary Russians watch the purchasing power of their savings decline, the country’s central bank has taken increasingly desperate steps to preserve the currency’s value, including jacking interest rates up to 17.5 percent and using Russia’s substantial foreign currency reserves to buy rubles in an effort to keep the exchange rate from falling further.
Last week, it was reported that the Kremlin had strongly suggested that major Russian companies convert their profits earned in foreign currency back into rubles – a suggestion that many executives, watching a relative of Putin’s most high-profile opponent be shipped off to a labor camp, may find hard to ignore.
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