Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t abide much in the way of opposition. He, or at least some of those who do his bidding, do what it takes — peacefully or otherwise — to silence those who might create problems for President Putin.
Journalists and others looking too closely into corruption involving the president or some of his associates have a way of getting murdered — shot or poisoned — or simply vanishing. That also happens with political opponents, though they’re more likely to be discredited by rumor campaigns or charged with crimes and convicted in courts sometimes devoid of justice. The lucky ones get modest prison terms.
Sometimes, though, President Putin, who despite or perhaps because of his despotic ways remains Russia’s most popular politician, overreaches. That might help explain why Alexei Navalny, a 37-year-old anti-corruption activist who was sentenced to five years in prison on phony embezzlement charges this week, was released on bail the next day pending the outcome of his appeal.
He’s not out on bail because President Putin is magnanimous; he’s a KGB-trained bully. Mr. Navalny is out of jail because thousands of Russians — and not just those who follow his popular blog — demonstrated in cities and towns across Russia when they learned his prison sentence. He’s arguably out on bail because the Kremlin doesn’t know quite what to do with him. Mr. Putin, with an eye on the Arab world, knows how smaller protests can ignite movements and topple governments.
The Wall Street Journal has called Mr. Navalny, a lawyer, “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.” Mr. Navalny was among the leaders of protests involving tens of thousands of Russians against President Putin’s second election campaign, one whose outcome was never in doubt.
Though crediting President Putin for turning the economy around during his first term, Mr. Navalny added, “We will never consider Putin as a president with legitimacy” and has called the United Russia Party, which holds power, “a party of crooks and thieves.”
His fate might hinge on how concerned President Putin is about social unrest, which authorities continue to mishandle. For example, the Associated Press reports that police rushed into at least one crowd protesting Mr. Navalny’s sentence to “pluck out” those who were carrying his portrait.
Mr. Putin might well persuade the judiciary to grant Mr. Navalny’s appeal and then proclaim the glories of Russia’s legal system while giving Mr. Navalny one fewer thing to complain about. Of course, if Mr. Navalny becomes enough of a threat, perhaps one unlucky day he’ll get struck by a speeding car or fall out of a window in a skyscraper.