Russia Direct reviews how Russian and Western media have differed in their coverage of the trial of Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and harsh critic of the Kremlin.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, left, embraces his wife Yulia at a court room in Kirov, Russia on Thursday, July 18, 2013. Alexei Navalny, one of the Russian opposition's leading figures, was convicted of embezzlement Thursday and sentenced to five years in prison. Photo: AP

Now that prominent Russian anti-corruption blogger and vocal anti-Kremlin whistleblower Alexei Navalny has been found guilty of embezzlement by a Kirov court, Russia Direct offers a roundup of how leading Russian and Western media outlets have been covering the Navalny trial.

The Navalny trial has attracted a great deal of buzz surrounding Russia’s human rights record both in Russia and abroad. Leading Russian and foreign media outlets have been discussing the Navalny case and its implications since April 2013, when the trial started.

Navalny’s five-year prison sentence was announced on July 18

a day after he officially registered as a candidate for Moscow's mayoral election in September. As a result, the Navalny case is expected to stir up more tension and media outcry about Russia’s human rights record and its controversial image abroad.

The Western media have described Navalny as a martyr, and have compared him with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company who was jailed because of tax evasion accusations. Meanwhile, members of Russia’s leading media outlets offer their predictions about the effect of the trial on the country’s image abroad.

Navalny: A fly in the ointment of Russia’s relations with the West

Alexei Navalny with his wife. Photo: Sergei Mikheev / RG

According to influential Russian magazine Kommersant-Vlast, the Navalny trial may complicate the relations between Moscow and the West and drive the European Union to adopt another version of the Magnitsky list.

“[The Navalny case] has become one of those Russian trials that has mandatory attendance not only for journalists, but also for Western diplomats,” the magazine wrote in April shortly after the start of the trial. “Among them are Second Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Russia, David Emtestam, an official from the U.S. Embassy Political Department, Kevin Covert, and the EU Commission representative in Moscow, Alexandar Melamed.”

“This is a high-profile case and it has important implications,” said Covert as quoted by Kommersant-Vlast magazine.

“The presence of an American diplomat at the court sends a certain signal: The trial and its transparency is not indifferent for Washington,” the magazine said in its April issue quoting a source close to the White House.

According to Kommersant-Vlast, the Navalny trial is likely to deteriorate Russia’s diplomatic relations with a number of Western nations including the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Moreover, it might drive European lawmakers to adopt an EU version of the Magnitsky list:  

“In this situation, EU criticism toward Russia regarding the Navalny case is a good reason to express its disappointment with Moscow as well as a good pretext to reassess its relations [with Russia],” the magazine said. “Hermitage Capital founder [and Sergei Magnitsky boss] William Browder, one of the major forces behind the [Magnitsky] campaign, believes that the Navalny trial will make his dreams about an ‘all-European Magnitsky law’ come true.”        

Post-protest syndrome: Tightening the screws

The Navalny trial started in April 2013 and was postponed until July. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Russia’s opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta argues that the prison sentence of Navalny indicates that he “has become a new Mikhail Khodorkovsky.”

“This [case] will directly define the term of Vladimir Putin: he will sit in office until the next presidential elections,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta.

Navalny’s imprisonment shows that Russia’s new political development is in full swing and “political frost” is increasingly shaping domestic policy with no concessions to civil society expected in the near future, Kolesnikov said.

In his opinion, the Navalny trial indicates that the Kremlin is tightening the screws even more after a series of post-election protests and Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign.

“Navalny’s sentence will reveal the level of the Putin 3.0 regime’s rigidity,” Kolesnikov wrote. “First, the sentence is accusatory. … Second, the announced prison term is shockingly huge. And the measure of punishment chosen by the judge is absolutely disproportionate to the deed, which proves the regime’s ongoing increase in harshness.”

The columnist treats Navalny’s sentence with a heavy dose of seriousness and sees it as an “indicator” of increasing “political frost”: “The tough sentence frightens the rest of [opposition activists], as the authorities send a signal – no one will hang out and flirt with opposition anymore,” he claims.

Navalny: Russia’s Nelson Mandela?

Meanwhile, The Economist magazine claims that the imprisonment of Navalny might bring political instability in Russia. 

“The Kremlin takes Mr. Navalny more seriously than any other opposition figure except Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” it said. “Mr. Navalny is a new type of politician, who does not come from within the system or have Soviet baggage."

Russia's Nelson Mandela? Photo: Reuters

The Economist explains that Navalny’s main appeal “is not to the Russian intelligentsia but to the urban, mobile middle class, small-time entrepreneurs and managers in private firms who flourished in the 1990s.”

“Jailing Mr. Navalny might play to his advantage, further eroding the Kremlin’s legitimacy. His conviction may be predictable, but its consequences are not,” The Economist forecasted in April.

Time magazine argues that the prison sentence for Navalny will seriously hamper his chances to be involved in politics and may revoke his license to practice law in the future. In the context of the prison sentence, Time supports the comparison of Navalny with South Africa’s revolutionary leader Nelson Mandela. 

“In some sense, prison might be preferable,” the magazine wrote in April. “As an Izvestia journalist pointed out during an interview with [Russia’s chief] investigator [Vladimir] Markin, sending Navalny to a labor camp could turn him into Russia’s version of Nelson Mandela.”

On the day of the announcement of Navalny’s sentence, The New York Times echoed Time’s reference to Mandela:

“In the online world where Mr. Navalny was a singular voice with a knack for zinging catchphrases, supporters noted that the verdict came on Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and that the Kremlin had published an official congratulatory message from the Mr. Putin to the former South African leader even as Russia was about to make Mr. Navalny its own political prisoner,” the newspaper says.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal sees the verdict for Navalny as “the low point for an anti-Kremlin opposition movement that galvanized tens of thousands of mostly middle-class Muscovites in late 2011 and early 2012”.

The Moscow Bureau of BBC views the Navalny case as an attempt of Russia’s investigators to suppress Russia’s protest sentiments:

“The Investigative Committee has turned in a major repressive instance involved in the cracking down of the protest movement, and Alexei Navalny became its biggest target,” it said.

More: Opposition leader Navalny sentenced to 5 years