As Nelson Mandela lies ailing in a Pretoria hospital, hundreds of miles away in a courtroom in Kirov, Russia, history may have repeated itself. With the conviction of Alexei Navalny under arguably dubious circumstances, Vladimir Putin has cast aside the strongest threat to his presidency. Yet, he may have also unwittingly strengthened the opposition's hand.
The likes of Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi stature only grew when they were imprisoned or placed under house arrest respectively. They became highly visual symbols of repression, and became even more troublesome to the regimes that had held them captive. Yet this is not quite a "Mandela moment". Navalny is not as a universally popular figure (yet) in Russia as Mandela was in South Africa or Suu Kyi was in Burma. By this I mean whilst he does have a large and devoted base of supporters, they are not diverse enough to present an issue. He came to prominence through social networking and his prolific blogging, both traditional stomping grounds of the young. He has low support from older Russian due to this, not helped by the fact that he has a limited platform.
Granted, Russian's young and old are infuriated with the gross and rampant corruption plaguing the country. It is so systemic that it is virtually impossible to do anything like setting up a business without a rolodex of contacts and a few envelops stuffed to bursting with Rubbles. It is this corruption that is suffocating investment and start-ups in Russia, and causing a large amount of capital flight out of the country and into the likes of London. In short, it is killing Russia. Yet Russian's, like us all, require a larger base of issues before they throw their support behind a party. I have yet to hear Navalny's views on education or health for instance. This makes him easy to support as a youth, but not when you have a school age child or a sick elderly relative.
Putin can take some solace in the fact that this is, at present, the strongest opposition he can face. Yet he cannot sleep quietly. International condemnation has been limp wristed at best, with Britain and the EU issuing tough sounding rhetoric but no movement in terms of condemnation through trade restrictions; something that would actually bite and make Putin think twice. It is a bit like giving a child a stern stare for misbehaving and then still treating him to ice-cream on the way home from school. The USA on the other hand, with lessening energy dependence on Russia and smarting from the Snowdon issue, has scope to put greater pressure on the Kremlin.
Yet looking internally, Putin's position is looking increasingly mismanaged. In his first terms he looked in control and managed his affairs, albeit with a heavy hand, cleverly and appeared strong. Now he looks like a man trying to fight dozens of small fires. Take this year for example. Besides the Navalny trial and Snowdon, there is Pussy Riot, the Kafkaesque trial of the late Sergei Magnitsky, the clampdown of LGBT groups and activists, the banning of international NGOs and mass protests in Moscow. I could go on, but it resembles a man trying to fight a war on many fronts.
Further, the economy of Russia is troubling. Whilst growing, it has some inherent flaws. As mentioned before, the USA has begun to see a move towards energy independence, so the market for Russian energy exports is shrinking but is still overly dependent on energy exports. Also, the difficulties of doing business and launching start ups as well as issues in the distribution of capital i.e. that a few seem to have a lot, whilst a lot seem to have little, are issues that need to be addressed for the long term health and success of Russia, as does the longstanding concerns over inflation rates. Over his current term, Putin will find himself on increasing pressure of this front.
Putin though is a symptom, not the disease itself. Removing him does not overnight end corruption. In fact, it could worsen, if that is possible. Russia's courts and economy are riddled with it to their foundations. Installing Navalny may help in this issue, but who is to say he could make inroads, or even fall prey to corruption himself. I pray he won't, but there is only one way to find out. He deserves his chance to run for office, at least for the post of Mayor of Moscow.
When Mandela and Suu Kyi were imprisoned, the world turned on the regimes of Burma and South Africa and using a combination of economic and political sanctions forced the regimes hands, albeit slowly. I am not suggesting this for Russia, but rhetoric only goes so far. The likes of Europe and the USA, and increasingly China, must act more strongly in condemning the human rights record of Russia, and find ways of encouraging dialogue to allow the situation to improve. When it comes down to it, it is pretty simple. What matters more to these powers, trade or rights and democracy? At the moment, it seems we value oil and gas more than we value freedom and human rights.