The Navalny trial created a lot of buzz in Western media circles, but most experts doubt that it will seriously affect Russia’s image abroad.

It remains to be seen if the Navalny trial will be a game-cahnger for Russia. Photo: Reuters

The five-year prison sentence for anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny resulted in a public outcry that transformed into mass protests in both Russia and abroad. While the Moscow police authorities claim that the rallies in central Moscow brought together only about 2,500 people, Yabloko opposition party leader Sergei Mitrokhin says that the protest attracted up to 10,000 people. In Moscow, about 200 people were detained, according to different estimates.

These protest sentiments were echoed in other Russian cities and even in the U.S., where small handfuls of opposition activists took to the streets in New York to express their support and solidarity for Navalny.

The day after the announcement of the trial verdict, Navalny was released from custody under the condition that he wouldn’t leave Moscow until his prison sentence comes into effect. 

Navalny, who officially registered as a candidate for Moscow's mayoral election in September, initially refused to participate in this campaign until after the announcement of the prison sentence. After release, he said that he might reassess his decision not to participate in the Moscow mayoral race.  The opposition activist said that he had two options: “It is either a boycott of the elections or participation in them."

Meanwhile, Russia Direct contacted Russian and American experts to find out how the Navalny trial will affect Russia’s image abroad. Will it lead to an expansion of the Magnitsky list and a revival of Russia’s protest movement?

Yuri Korgunyuk, co-founder of the Moscow-based think tank and non-governmental organization INDEM

The Kremlin didn’t expect such public outcry to Navalny’s conviction and that’s why it stepped back. Both internal (yesterday's rallies in Russia) and external response (reaction from the West) puzzled the Kremlin. Many Russian people and politicians unanimously denounced [the court’s decision to jail Navalny for five years]. And the Russian authorities didn’t expect this. That’s why they released Navalny for a month.

Everybody had been looking at the case and asked if they would dare to convict him. They did and then saw the backlash.

Now the Navalny trial may increase controversy about Russia’s image, which could result in expanding the Magnitsky list for Europe. In this case, Russia might repeat the Belarus scenario and have its officials banned from getting visas and entering Europe.

After all, Russia has done a great deal to complicate its relations with West and spur discussions about expansion of the Magnitsky list.

Take the series of controversial laws adopted recently by Russia’s State Duma - the NGO law targeting “foreign agents” and the Dima Yakovlev law preventing American families from adopting Russian orphans – and add the Navalny trial, as well as new attempts to file new criminal charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The Russian authorities seem to be sawing a tree branch on which they are sitting with one hand, while with the other hand, they try to greet the West. Yet, it’s pretty difficult to do. So the expansion of the Magnitsky list is quite possible.

Could the Navalny trial revive Russia’s protest movement? Yesterday’s protests not far from the State Duma in Moscow prove that it could. Does this look like a “political frost? Does this look like a decrease in political activism? I don’t think so. [The authorities] thought that people would take it and keep silent? Were they silent on July 18? No way! They took to the streets. The government realized it and yielded.

Evgeny Minchenko, president, International Institute for Political Expertise

The Navalny trial will affect Russia’s image abroad. On the other hand, we have had more negative precedents that negatively impacted the image of our country [in the U.S. and the European Union]. And these precedents overshadow the Navalny case. As for the expansion of the Magnitsky list for European countries, this won’t happen [because the Navalny trial is less serious]: Magnitsky died in prison, while Navalny was sentenced and then released.

In my view, the Navalny case is a tactic used by members of Putin’s team to pressure the other members of his team. And its victim is Sergey Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor [who stepped down in June to participate in Moscow’s snap mayoral elections in September – editor’s note]. Getting the registration of a candidate for the mayoral elections to be rejected is no better than getting a prison sentence to be released and become more prominent afterwards.  

Gregory Feifer, author and former Moscow correspondent, National Public Radio (NPR)         

Some have said Navalny's conviction marks a new stage in Vladimir Putin's rule. In fact, the Soviet-style manipulation of the justice system for silencing the Kremlin's most threatening critics goes back to his first days in office a dozen years ago.

The absurdity of the charges against Navalny is no doubt meant to make especially clear that critics are powerless against the authorities' will. However, after the cases of Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and countless others, Navalny's sentence will have the effect only of confirming the general perception of Russia as an authoritarian place.

I doubt it will affect relations with the U.S. and European countries in any significant way; they're already adept at ignoring Russian human rights violations beyond issuing a few statements.

I very much doubt there will be any "Navalny list." The White House enacted the Magnitsky act only because it was forced to do so. There will be no appetite for more trouble from Moscow, especially since Western countries already know perfectly well what kind of government rules Russia.

Navalny has emerged as one of Russia's most effective, eloquent, fearless and inventive opposition leaders. His conviction is a heavy, demoralizing blow to a protest movement that has already all but fizzled out. Although it may revive one day, the coming days will be some of its darkest. In that sense, the decision to end Navalny's political career even if he's released sooner than in five years is exceedingly effective from the Kremlin's point of view.

More: Opposition leader Navalny sentenced to 5 years