To everyone's surprise Alexei Navalny was released this afternoon, pending the results of his appeal. First interpretations are that the Russian government has bent to popular outrage expressed yesterday outside the Kremlin. Navalny himself has taken it this way.
Some have even taken it as a signal that he will win on appeal. The equally surprising decision by the authorities to register Navalny as a candidate for Moscow's mayoral elections days before his conviction is also being used to support this view. There's talk of a Liberal/Hardliner battle in the Kremlin over Navalny's case, which is causing the irregularities.
But while there's no question the case has upset some in the elite (Alexei Kudrin's distressed tweet is telling), the idea that the Kremlin's changing course is misplaced. The Kremlin doesn't change its mind in political trials.
Приговор Навальному выглядит не столько наказанием, сколько направлен на изоляцию его от общественной жизни, избирательного процесса— Алексей Кудрин (@Aleksei_Kudrin) July 18, 2013
"Navalny's sentence looks not so much like a punishment, but as way to isolate him from civil life, and the electoral process." Alexei Kudrin, former Finance Minister.
It does, however, change gears. The Kremlin leaves windows open, and then methodically goes round shutting them- it did so throughout the Yukos saga, and it's done so with Pussy Riot. It dangles always a slim hope of reprieve, there's always a final appeal. As Navalny told The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, "Hope dies last".
The idea is to keep as much wiggle-room as possible, to keep opponents and international critics wrong-footed. This space allows the government to throttle back when international pressure is fierce or particularly inopportune- it allow it to maintain its distance. Keeping its opponents hopes alive also encourages them to compromise, to hold back.
But as Russia's newest political prisoner knows, there is no reason to think Navalny's appeal will be successful. Navalny will go to jail. Calls for the Kremlin to step-in, to cancel the sentence will not be heeded; to reverse now would be to admit that the trial had been all along political. Putin is always careful to insist matters are out of his hands, that the investigation (as in all democracies) is a matter purely for the judiciary. To drop the trial now would be to drop the charade- it's impossible.
The reprieve granted him and opportunity to run for mayor look like self-inflicted damage control on behalf of the authorities- a chance for the Kremlin to blur claims its not democratic. The tiny possiblity of Mayor Navalny will be held out for a month or so and then snatched away- probably the appeal decision will come just before 8th September, blocking him from running. So the blogger faces an awkward choice now to participate in elections and risked being used as a face-saver or to not take part and lose the platform few expected him to be permitted to have at all.
The elite are worried though. Putin's Russia has seen many political trials now, but Navalny's was different: Khodorkovsky, while his charges may have been trumped up, nonetheless had trod a very fine line legally, likewise Berezovsky forced into exile, even Pussy Riot would probably have faced charges in the UK (though never have received such sentences). But Navalny has been jailed for essentially uncovering crime. His jailing is a bald acknowledgement that the reputations and assets of some in the Kremlin comes above Russia's international, legal and economic standing. Unlike Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot's jailing, Navalny's isn't controversial- there's no other side, Navalny can't (believably) be accused of fleecing ordinary Russians (although this is precisely what he's accused of), nor of offending Orthodox believers. You can't put lipstick on this pig and the Kremlin knows it- all they can do is hold their nose and try and ride it out.
The wiggle room the Kremlin's given itself belongs to Navalny as well- what he does with the small amount of time he has now is going to be interesting.
Navalny's jailing is a clear sign that the Kremlin can no longer manage democracy- it is either unwilling or unable to risk it. There's a reason why the architect of that ideology's long gone. Today's Libération's front-page reads "Dictatorship à la Putin"; yesterday's ruling for many was a definitive indictment.
Each time it does this, Russia's rulers move closer towards that embarrassing word- dictatorship. For many, the Kremlin's already there, it's just a question of how often it has to resort to the chains. Just two days before, we had a dead man convicted in another political trial- that one also touched too closely on elite corruption. For much of his time in power, Putin hasn't had to embrace totally the role, but yesterday a decision seems to have been made. The spate of political trials, threats of arrest, authoritarian laws, paranoid TV documentaries all point to the fact that Putin's state is no longer willing to risk having things beyond its control.
And it's not just embarrassing, it's expensive- following Navalny's conviction, the Russian stock market fell immediately by 2%. Two months ago, Sergei Guriev, one of the state's best faces for international investors fled, citing political persecution. Every time the government does this, it makes itself weaker and it narrows its options.
With every impressive individual the Kremlin drives from Russia or into the prison camps, the more true Navalny's epithet becomes- the more there is only the Party of Crooks and Thieves, the more the ruling circle is reduced to crooks and thieves, as the only ones who can be trusted. There was no ambiguity about yesterday's conviction, there can be no claims that Russia is more stable, just the certainty that the Russian state was used criminally.
A few months ago, I spoke to another whistleblower, Bill Browder, just convicted in absentia alongside the late Sergei Magnitsky in a trial deemed so political Interpol won't enforce the warrant for Browder. Browder told me that, he believes the day he returns to Russia it will be to witness "the first trials of the old regime".
Most days, Browder's vision sounds fantastical. But, on days like yesterday, when the naked criminality that runs through parts of the Russian state bare themselves, it somehow becomes easier to imagine.