Frighten and be frightened


The uncompromising sentences passed down today to Aleksey Navalny and co-defendant Petr Ofitserov demonstrate that the Putin regime has crossed over to the twilight phase. The only thing it can offer Russia now is fear, and that is not much of a programme, says Kirill Rogov

Kirill Rogov
18 July 2013

Aleksey's Navalny’s sentence was not revealed today. It was actually revealed some time ago, on 25 April 2013, when Vladimir Putin made a note of saying ‘anyone fighting corruption must be crystal clean themselves’. An ironic phrase from a man Navalny himself accused of creating a political system based on total corruption.

Putin could not fail to send Navalny down, although I’m sure many tried to persuade him not to do it. According to the reciprocity principle that governs Putin’s understanding of power, he had only two options: either frighten and make sure everyone else is frightened of you; or show a weak spot, allow people not to be frightened of you, and admit you have reached the end of the road. 

Thus was the motivation behind both of Putin’s personal vendettas — against Khodorkovsky, and now against Navalny. Had either man showed fear, they would have received altogether softer punishments. But, on the contrary, by demonstrating their fearlessness, their unwillingness to hand over personal freedom and recognise the Pakhan [godfather’s] supreme authority, they left Mr Putin with no choice but to send them both down. And both imprisonments have cost Putin very dearly. 

Aleksey Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky have shown exceptional personal heroism. Their co-defendants Petr Ofitserov and Platon Lebedev have too shown heroism. Their's is a heroism that rejects the corrupt, Mafiosi laws of personal interaction and behaviour. A heroism that recognises the inherent beauty and strength of a person who rejects such laws. 

‘The Khodorkovsky sentence marked the beginning of a new principle — “frighten or whiten”

Both sentences represent fundamental departures in the career of Putin-the-president. After the Khodorkovsky sentence, Putin was impelled to move from a politics of balancing interests to an authoritarian-mafia model of “capitalism for cronies”. The nature and essence of this new system was not immediately obvious to society at large, given the extremely fortuitous economic conditions. But the verdict undoubtedly marked a departure and a point of no return. It marked the beginning of a new principle — “frighten or whiten”.

The Navalny sentence marks not so much a turn towards a new repressive, police state, as many might think, as the irreversible transition of the regime to its twilight phase. Dozens of pages could be devoted to an analysis about why this is necessarily so, but for the time being we can limit ourselves to the basic points.  


Navalny's latest corruption investigation exposed lavish fittings and illegal territorial expansion at Vladmir Yakunin's countryside Dacha

For me, it all became rather obvious when the chubby Kirov judge reached the section about damages in his tongue-twisting judgement. He listed Navalny’s assets — a Lada, an old Hyundai and half an apartment — all of which would seized following the sentence. What can I say? Navalny’s Lada and second-hand Hyundai will serve as huge medals to be hung as an appendix to Navalny’s last corruption investigation, where he told Russians about the fur-coat storage rooms in the countryside dacha of Vladimir Yakunin, head of the Russian railways Vladimir Yakunin (and Putin crony).  

‘In the [Khodorkovsky] process, Putin was “our kind of guy”; now “our kind of guys” are Navalny and Ofitserov’ 

The Khodorkovsky trial was an injustice, but the difference here is that Khodorkovsky’s riches were also an injustice in the eyes of the population. Ideologically speaking, Putin won that argument. Today, the executioner and the victim have changed roles, as has the understanding of justice and injustice. In the first process, Putin was “our kind of guy”; now “our kind of guys” are, without doubt, Navalny and Ofitserov. 

The second symptom of the regime’s inevitable decline are the malfunctionings of the “frightening” machine that are beginning to notice. The repressive model was efficient so long as Putin achieved a significant effect by applying fairly limited force. Today, the situation is different: the force needs to be heavier and applied more widely. Yet it still only has a partial effect, which needs in turn to be supported by further increases in force. 

With today’s verdict, you have a clear sense that the Putin team itself is frightened. Judge Blinov is frightened, head of the Investigative Committee Bastrykin is frightened, ministers are frightened, governors are frightened, the mayor of Moscow Sobyanin is frightened. The more force they need to apply, the more they will be frightened. 

There is no programme other than frighten and be frightened. And that is a poor programme. 


Thumbnail picture: Judge Sergei Blinov. (c) Ria Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov

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