Just as President Vladimir Putin was sending Nelson Mandela greetings on his 95th birthday today, Russia's intellectual class was watching the birth of its own Mandela. In the small, decrepit city of Kirov, 600 miles northeast of Moscow, judge Sergei Blinov monotonously read the 100-page sentence in the trial of anti-Putin blogger Alexey Navalny.
Navalny, a 37-year-old lawyer and political activist, became widely known for exposing official corruption in his LiveJournal blog and then launching a successful crowd-funded project called Rospil, which publicizes corrupt government purchasing deals. Russian investigators have long tried to discredit Navalny by nailing him for corruption. The investigations culminated in the Kirov trial, with Navalny accused of organizing the theft of roughly $500,000 worth of lumber from a government-owned company.
During the four-month trial, prosecutors never bothered to prove that Navalny had ever personally profited from the sale of the lumber. The judge rejected evidence that the lumber was fully paid for, saying that this was merely inadequate compensation for stolen goods. The proceedings were broadcast over the Internet, and those who bothered who watch them had sunk into gloom by the time the prosecutor asked for six years' imprisonment. Today, judge Blinov sentenced the opposition activist to five years in a prison camp.
Businesspeople throughout Russia saw the sentence as a threat to their own legitimate endeavors. "Starting from today, any person signing a business contract will know that, should the authorities so wish, he can be imprisoned at any time," commented billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who ran against Putin in the last presidential election.
Russian stock indices dipped right after the five-year sentence was announced. The MICEX Index closed down 1.06 percent. The Russian business climate, however, has hardly changed: The sentence says nothing new about the corrupt quasi-capitalist economic system that took root in Russia under Putin. It was clear to most of those who followed Navalny's career that he was not imprisoned for any business-related crime.
"Navalny was jailed today for just one crime: running a LiveJournal blog," commented blogger Anton Nosik. "And if that is worth a five-year prison term in Russia these days, whatever plans I might have for tonight, I'll have to cancel them. I need to go out and tell the bastards that I am not afraid."
Between 5,000 and 10,000 people flocked to Manezh Square in central Moscow to protest the verdict, flouting a law requiring all rallies to be approved in advance by the city authorities. Police sealed off the square, and protesters crowded on sidewalks chanting "Freedom!" "Navalny!" and "Putin is a thief!" At one point people spilled out on the city's main street, Tverskaya, blocking the rush-hour traffic.
It is in Moscow that Navalny, a Muscovite, has his biggest support base. He was running for mayor of the capital against the Putin-appointed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, in an election set for Sept. 8. After the sentencing, Navalny's chief of staff Leonid Volkov said he would have to withdraw from the race since it was impossible to run an effective campaign from prison.
Navalny may have won a bigger victory, however. Even his adversaries recognize that the prison sentence makes him a bigger threat to the regime. "I have never believed in Navalny or that he had potential. Now he does," wrote pro-Putin TV personality Tina Kandelaki in a Twitter post.
Putin's former political adviser Gleb Pavlovsky told the news agency Interfax that "during the trial Navalny has acted very effectively as a politician. This strengthens him, makes him bigger. Now Navalny will indeed become a politician on a national scale rather than just an Internet figure."
Navalny showed impressive courage as he awaited his jail sentence. He could have fled the country or toned down his criticism of the regime, but he plowed ahead cheerfully. On July 16, he published a thorough, sarcastic investigative report on the shady business dealings of Putin's close friend Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia's railroad monopoly. Even as Judge Blinov plodded through the sentence, Navalny was trying to make his supporters laugh by keeping up a running commentary on Twitter.
After the judge read the verdict, Navalny posted one last tweet, referring to Putin's oil-fueled regime: "OK. Don't miss me too much while I'm gone. But, more important, don't sit on your hands: The toad will not jump off the oil pipe of its own accord."
Navalny's support on the national scale, and even in Moscow, is so far statistically tiny. Pollsters predicted that he would not win more than 8 percent of the vote in the mayoral election. But then, few people saw Nelson Mandela as South Africa's future president in 1962, when he received a life sentence from a Pretoria court. Navalny, who is 23 years younger than Putin, clearly believes that time is on his side.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)