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Navalny Case Offers ‘Chilling Effect’ for Russians Considering Political Action

July 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Ray Suarez talks to Fiona Hill of Brookings Institution about how most Russians see the conviction of Alexei Navalny, how the prominent case has affected the opposition movement in that country and whether the sentence adds more strain to U.S.-Russia relations.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Alexei Navalny and the broader significance of his conviction, we turn to Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”

Fiona, is this just another trial of a pesky opposition figure or is it something more significant than that? 

FIONA HILL, Brookings Institution: Well, for Putin, it may well be just another trial of a pesky opposition figure.

But if you look at this in the broader totality of the Russian opposition movement that the piece that we have just seen has really tracked, beginning with the response to falsification in the December 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia, then to the protests about Putin essentially telling the country that he was going to come back as the president and making sure that happened in the presidential elections, this is actually more significant, because what we have really seen over the last year is a concentrated effort by the Kremlin and by Putin himself to decapitate that opposition by targeting key figures.

And Alexei Navalny was question one of the most prominent of those opposition figures who is now being dispensed with, from the Kremlin’s point of view, in a very public and rather humiliating fashion, because what they have done is turned around on Navalny the accusations that he has been throwing at the system of corruption and of personal enrichment by key figures, and saying, well, you are no better than we are, and here you are, you have a five-year jail sentence to contemplate your role in this movement.

RAY SUAREZ: If we were to walk on Russian urban streets tonight and talk to people about the verdict, would what they say reflect whether or not they support President Putin himself?

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FIONA HILL: To some degree.

I think there’s a great deal of cynicism across the board right now with this political game that many people are being — seen playing out in Moscow.

There is a recent poll by the Levada Center, which is one of the independent polling groups in Russia, that show about 44 percent of the population think that — at least those who have been polled — think that this was pretty much a setup of Navalny.

Another 13 or so percent think it was definitely targeted against him because of his political activism. But a good 20-plus percent of people think that there might have been some malfeasance there.

So, there is also a proportion of the population that probably is not as large as the support for Putin who actually think, well, whole system is full of corruption, that the opposition people are also in the game of enriching themselves too. Frankly, there’s nobody here who is clean and that everybody is out there for personal gain.

So the situation is quite complicated. A lot of people clearly see this for what it is, as an attempt to get rid of the opposition. But there’s still that feeling that, well, the whole system of this country that we’re in now, there’s always something going on here.

RAY SUAREZ: Did this pass a plausibility test that a blogger and opposition figure based in Moscow would be involved in provincial timber swindling schemes?

FIONA HILL: There is a whole number of these kinds of cases right now.

There’s another situation where a prominent mayor has been arrested and is being put upon trial. There is a whole host of trials across the country for people involved in corruption.

What’s significant about this particular case, however, is, as we saw in the segment, that the case has been pretty much lifted from the prosecution’s indictments of Navalny himself. There wasn’t a jury in this case. It was a judge trial, where the level of the evidence that has to be presented is not particularly high.

And what’s also significant is that the defense were not able to call their own witnesses. Each one of their attempts to put the case in Navalny’s favor was rejected.

So there were no witnesses for the defense that were called. There was very little of the evidence that they had gathered to refute the prosecution’s case that was put on the table.

So this in itself is a pretty glaring example of one of the kinds of show trials that we have seen in the past. And if there had been a jury presence or there had been much more evidence put forward and the defense had been able to present their case, we might have been having a different review of this matter.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you expect a chilling effect? If you have been working with Navalny’s movement, are you likely to go to ground now?

FIONA HILL: There has already been very much a chilling effect.

This case has actually been going on for the last three months. There’s also some other cases of protesters who took part in many of the demonstrations that we saw in the segment.

About 28 people have been plucked up off the streets in these demonstrations fairly randomly, ordinary people who were not leaders of the opposition, but — and some of whom had just taken part in protests for the very first time.

They’re also standing trial, some of them for organizing the protests, some of them just taking part, some of them, more ominously, for carrying out acts of violence against the police, which can also hold very large prison terms. Some people have already been sentenced.

And about 12 people now are under trial too collectively for their part in these demonstrations, so definitely a chilling effect for people thinking about whether they want to protest in the future some political act.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this intertwine with the current track of U.S.-Russia relations?

We have got the American ambassador tweeting about his opposition to the verdict. We have got the continued presence of Edward Snowden in Moscow Airport and the possibility of the president’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg around the G20 suddenly looking very shaky.

FIONA HILL: Yes, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been beset by a whole host of problems recently.

We have many discussions going on and how we can reset the reset, the attempt to put the rhetoric of the relationship and the substance of the relationship on a different footing after many of the difficulties that we have had over the last several years.

The intended meeting between Obama and Putin in September, which was going to take place against the backdrop of the G20 summit in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, was intended to really try to cement a new way forward, try to have a cordial meeting between the two leaders. The last meeting that just took place in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the G8 meeting was anything but cordial.

People remember the images of very poor body language between Obama and Putin. It was a very cold meeting. There wasn’t much substance in it. So, now we have a question mark whether Obama should in fact go and have a big summit meeting with Putin in September.

And I think a lot of things are pointing in the direction that this would be a real question for the White House to address is it really worth, against the backdrop of Edward Snowden still being somewhere in Moscow and against these recent incidents, and would it really be worth it for the White House to have that meeting?

We also have no progress on Syria, for example, and the meetings that Secretary Kerry is trying to push forward with the Syrian opposition and Russian involvement. There’s really more on the negative balance sheet right now than the positive.

RAY SUAREZ: Fiona Hill, thanks a lot.

FIONA HILL: Thank you, Ray.