Today, in a shocking turn of events, a Moscow court sentenced Oleg Navalny (brother of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny), to three and a half years in a penal colony for fraud. However, his brother the opposition figure Alexei Navalny unexpectedly avoided jail and was instead handed a suspended sentence for embezzlement. Critics condemned the judgment as marking a return to the Soviet-era practice of punishing the relatives of dissenters. Following the verdict an estimated 2,000 people took to the streets of Moscow to protest. Navalny himself attempted to attend the protest but was quickly detained by police for breaching the terms of his house arrest. Today’s verdict represents the latest crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia which has been severely curtailed by the Kremlin in recent years.
Alexei Navalny, the prominent opposition figure and blogger, has been a continuous thorn in the side of President Putin for many years. An outspoken critic of the Kremlin and anti-corruption campaigner, Navalny is arguably the most high-profile opposition figure in Russia today and is regarded as the main opposition threat to the Putin regime. Two years ago Navalny led the anti-Putin rallies attended by more than 100,000 people and last year he won 27% of the votes in Moscow’s mayoral election. Navalny has been under house arrest since February for a separate conviction last year. The convictions against Navalny are widely regarded as being politically motivated and an attempt to crackdown on dissent.
However, today’s events are unfortunately far from the only crackdowns on freedom of expression in Russia in recent years. In August 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, members of punk rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years imprisonment after being convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ for a protest performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They were released as part of an amnesty last year.
The Kremlin has also cracked down on the independent media with virtually all television channels now being State owned. For instance, TV-2, a popular independent TV station in Siberia has recently announced that it will go off-air in the New Year after coming under pressure from Russian authorities. Nor are materials published on the internet immune from censorship. Under an internet blacklist law which came into effect in July 2012, the Russian authorities are now able to blacklist and take websites offline without trial.
However, despite this crackdown on fundamental freedoms in recent years, Putin’s approval ratings have remained high. For many Russians Putin’s tenure as President has offered them something which was lacking in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union: economic stability. This stability has come at the price of fundamental freedoms. However, with the rouble now at an all time low and the Russian economy in turmoil, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to justify his actions both at home and abroad. Now that this stability has gone how much longer will the President be able to hold on to power?
BBC News, ‘Russia internet blacklist law takes effect’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20096274
Forbes, ‘Vladimir Putin’s Approval Rate Is Still Near An All-Time High’: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markadomanis/2014/10/06/vladimir-putins-approval-rate-is-still-near-an-all-time-high/
The Guardian, ‘Alexei Navalny detained after breaking house arrest to join rally in Moscow’: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/30/alexei-navalny-sentenced-thousands-expected-protest-putin
The Guardian, ‘Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny gets suspended sentence but brother jailed’: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/30/kremlin-critic-navalny-given-suspended-sentence-brother-jailed
The Guardian, ‘Russian authorities order Siberian television station to go off-air’: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/29/russian-authorities-siberian-tv2-off-air
The Siberian Times, ‘Thousands protest closure threat against TV2 channel in Tomsk’: http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/n0057-thousands-protest-closure-threat-against-tv2-channel-in-tomsk/