A Russian court sentenced Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to five years in prison, then temporarily released him. DW spoke to the head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Moscow bureau about the proceedings.
Deutsche Welle: Alexei Navalny was accused of embezzling public funds. What's your impression of the proceedings?
Jens Siegert: It was a purely political trial. The spokesman for the state prosecutor confirmed that in a remark, when he advised Navalny to continue his rabblerousing and political action from prison. I can't assess the charges against Navalny. It is about economic issues, as in many of these trials, and I am just not knowledgeable enough.
In an interview, Navalny announced he would run for the presidency. Is that statement in any way connected to the trial?
Convicting a presidential candidate is different from convicting a regular opposition politician. Navalny possibly made that move to garner even more attention and protection. In reality, it doesn't mean much. The next presidential elections are in 201 - if nothing extraordinary happens beforehand.
Would Navalny be a dangerous opponent for President Vladimir Putin as a presidential candidate?
I believe Putin is his own most dangerous opponent. Just look at the mistakes currently being made in Russia. Navalny is certainly the most talented, and one of the most well-known, of all those trying their hand at opposition politics - outside parliament, since there are no opposition parties in parliament.
What would Navalny's chances be in a presidential election?
That's difficult to say. The Russian public is highly controlled. It depends on what is shown by state-controlled media, mainly television. From that point of view, Navalny has a degree of popularity of more than 30 percent. And 19 percent of the people could envision voting for him. That is far more than most politicians in Putin's camp can say for themselves - including Dmitri Medvedev, by the way.
Isn't Putin doing himself harm with the trial against Navalny? The opposition politician's popularity could even increase during the trial.
He certainly is. It's an old tradition in Russia: if a member of the opposition is put in prison, that's akin to a knighting. If Navalny is actually sentenced to prison, he will immediately become "Prisoner Number One" in Russia. Obviously, the Kremlin feels forced to persecute the opposition. This is also true for the so-called case of May 6, 2012. More than 20 people who had participated in a large anti-Putin demonstration ahead of Putin's inauguration are in detention or under house arrest. Except for intimidation, I don't understand what the Kremlin hopes to achieve with these trials. The aim could be to intimidate everyone who is too visible to the public. And Navalny and his anti-corruption campaigns are a real nuisance [to the government]. It's due to him, at least, that that a number of parliamentarians from the upper and lower houses had to resign following publications on his Internet platform.
How will the West react to the Navalny trial?
When I look at developments over the last weeks and months, it seems that, even in countries like Germany where he has a lot of friends, patience with Putin is wearing thin. It is becoming more difficult to justify by simply saying, "Putin is doing a passable job and Russia is a special country where other standards apply." Then politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel - in her case I have the impression she would rather not settle such things publicly - must go public, since they cannot afford not to in their own countries.
Jens Siegert has worked in Moscow for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a green-oriented German political foundation, since the mid-90s.
Alexei Navalny, 36, is famous for exposing corruption in Russia. He runs a blog and helped organize mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The lawyer is charged with embezzling half a million euros' worth of timber from a state-run company. He rejects the accusations, arguing on his website that Putin instructed the authorities to engineer a case.
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