Russian court temporarily released opposition activist Alexei Navalny, but German politicians and political experts criticize the initial guilty verdict.
After being convicted by Russian courts of embezzlement, blogger and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was released from custody pending an appeal decision. The move could be intended to quell international criticism, as well as opposition activists who protested in the thousands following a sentencing of five years in prison.
The verdict against Russian blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny had triggered criticism across party lines in Germany. "For us, it's further proof of authoritarian policy in Russia, which doesn't allow diversity and pluralism," said Andreas Schockenhoff, Germany's Commissioner for German-Russian Coordination, in an interview with DW. Navalny had gotten too dangerous for those in power at the Kremlin, said Schockenhoff, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Bundestag member.
Gernot Erler, a Bundestag member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) said it is a "bad day for Russia." The Navalny verdict makes it clear that "the politics of criminalizing the opposition will continue." He questioned the authenticity of the legal proceedings, which led to a "beheading of the opposition."
Experts, as well, have criticized the verdict. "It's suspected that the whole thing was a political action," said Eberhard Schneider of the EU-RussiaCentre in Brussels. Peter Schulze from the University of Göttingen spoke of a "politically motivated trial."
Five years in detention
On Thursday the court in the Russian city of Kirov sentenced Navalny to five years in prison. Prosecuters had been pushing for a six-year sentence. Navalny was found guilty of having cheated the state-run timber operation "Kirowles" of 400,000 euros ($524,000) in 2009. The 37-year-old denies all charges and called the trial a political charade. Judge Sergei Blinov dismissed such allegations. Navalny's attorney announced, however, that the judgement is not yet final.
Navalny is one of the best known critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. For years Navalny published revelations about corrupt Russian officials in his LiveJournal blog. In his closing remarks during the trial, Navalny vowed his intention to eliminate the "feudal system of power" in Russia - starting with Vladimir Putin at the top.
No longer a candidate
For German politicians and experts the case centers on political justice. When asked by DW if the arrested Alexei Navalny was a political prisoner, SPD politician Erler said, "I can not express it differently."
In the short-term, Navalny has been crippled as a candidate in Moscow's mayoral election on September 8, said Eberhard Schneider from the EU RussiaCentre. While Navalny didn't have the chance to win, Schneider said he could've forced the incumbent mayor into a runoff election. After the guilty verdict, Navalny's staff withdrew his candidacy. Convicted felons can not run for office in Russia.
"In the intermediate and long term, it means that Navalny has been discredited as a candidate," said Schneider. "He can no longer compete in any election in Russia, including the presidential election." In spring, Navalny had announced his intentions to compete in the next presidential election in 2018.
A blow to the opposition
There's more evidence to suggest that the trial had political motives, say German politicians. "The case against Navalny emerged at the time he not only participated in public demonstrations, but also when he exposed cases of corruption on his blog, and the Kremlin's combination of corruption and favoritism," said the CDU politician, Schockenhoff.
In an interview Nawalny accused the Russian president of having personally called for the proceedings against him. Experts point out that Navalny is not currently a threat for Kremlin leaders. The verdict was determined with the future in mind. "These are preventative measures against the so-called 'natural leaders' of social protest movements," said Peter Schulze of the University of Göttingen.
But experts say such tactics will not work for the Kremlin. Schulze's colleague, Eberhard Schneider agreed, "I don't think the opposition will be weakened." The opposition movement will become increasingly carried out by the middle class, he said. "They are smart enough to be the judge of things," Schneider said, calling for German politicians to offer greater support to the Russian middle class.
Strained relations with the West
The verdict against Navalny is likely to cause further strain on Russia's relationship to the West, though an increase in current tensions seems impossible. "They can hardly become more burdened than they already are right now," said Peter Schulze.
Since 2012 the European Union and the U.S. have repeatedly criticized the Russian justice system's actions toward civil activists. The verdict against political punk rock band, "Pussy Riot," and stricter rules for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from western countries has elicited concern about the internal political developments in Russia.
"At the moment we have an icy atmosphere in the European-Russian political realm, especially for German-Russian relations," said Schulze. The expert believes that Russian critics will feel vindicated by the Navalny verdict. He expects that the political climate will only grow colder.