Putin has 'lots of mechanisms' to sabotage foes following nationwide protests

Key Points
  • A high-profile dissident who could challenge Russian president Vladimir Putin in next year's election was imprisoned for the third time this year
  • Anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny appears to be the latest victim of a system meant to silence and disarm critics
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin could have good reason to fear Navalny, whose rallies have attracted thousands of supporters
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military exercise at a training ground on Sept. 18, 2017 at Luzhsky range near Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

A high-profile dissident who could challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin in next year's election was recently imprisoned for the third time this year, following a series of apparent maneuvers by the Kremlin to keep him sidelined.

That sidelining is part of an established pattern. The Russian administration possesses "lots of mechanisms they can use to sabotage candidates that they don't want," according to Gordon Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina who specializes in Russian politics.

And many of those tools have been put to use against the recently imprisoned lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny — who has been the victim of what experts describe as an elaborate system to silence and disarm.

Understanding that suppression apparatus is key to understanding Putin's iron grip on his country.

Red tape and reversed decisions

Navalny, who last year expressed his desire to run for the 2018 election, was detained en route to a rally last month for allegedly holding an unsanctioned public meeting. The arrest rendered the opposition leader unable to attend the recent protests he had organized.

The arrest was widely reported, but less known are the bureaucratic hurdles that hindered his campaign, according to a source in Navalny's office.

One example: The rallies had actually been given the full go-ahead, according to the source. A few days prior to the event, however, authorities "called the local office and they pretty much revoked the approval," the source said.

"They then considered this an unsanctioned event."

Navalny has traditionally ignored location restrictions when holding public meetings, which renders his rallies technically unauthorized, according to Smith.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a mass march on the one-year anniversary of dissident Boris Nemtsov's killing on Feb. 27, 2016 in Moscow, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

But while Russian authorities are legally allowed to prohibit a sanctioned rally, last-minute plan changes often frustrate and weaken potential dissidents.

"In many cities, especially after the first two very successful weekends, people started to just deny our right to gather, [saying] all the squares are busy, or ... 'You can only meet at 9 a.m. on the outskirts,'" the Navalny ally told CNBC.

Russian authorities did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

According to Smith, the permit to hold a rally is highly location dependent, and constitutes a way for the Kremlin to exercise control over public demonstrations.

Organizers are told they "can't hold their demonstrations in the major, most visible squares or streets ... they get pushed to the outskirts of town," he said.

The power of vague laws

This isn't the first time Navalny has been imprisoned, and that pattern is widely perceived as evidence the Kremlin is working to subdue him.

In 2013, Navalny was charged for embezzlement following a hearing deemed unfair by the European Court of Human Rights. He was reportedly not allowed to bring in witnesses or to testify.

And although the Russian court retried the case in February on orders from the ECHR, it "came to the very same conclusions using all the same evidence ... He still didn't have the right to bring witnesses," Smith said.

The evidence for Navalny's embezzlement charge was "extremely flimsy," according to Jeffery Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at policy research organization CSIS.

"Both the charges and the conviction, which allowed the Kremlin to prevent Navalny from appearing on the ballot and led to the jailing of his brother, were politically motivated," Mankoff told CNBC, adding that it was "an attempt to prevent Navalny from establishing himself as a political challenger to Putin."

"[Navalny] creates a real dilemma for the Putin administration," Smith concurred.

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Authorities claim Navalny is ineligible to run for office because of the conviction.

However, an unusual waiver — likely granted due to the thin evidence against him — allows him to be out on appeal. That complicates matters, according to Smith.

Although Russian election law says a person serving time in prison is not eligible to run for presidency, a negated sentence may technically mean he is eligible to run, Smith said.

"The law is written in such a way that it is vague and is open to interpretation, and the interpretation then rests with the judges," he explained. That said, Russian judges are generally unwilling to make decisions that contradict the will of Putin and the rest of the ruling elite, he added.

'A focal point for discontent'

The president has strong reason to dislike Navalny, a vocal critic of him and of alleged corruption within his inner circles.

The activist's anti-corruption campaign is not only winning over young urban voters, but it's "also potentially popular with rank and file, blue collar workers, or even people out in the countryside," according to Smith.

Navalny's efforts to publicize his rallies on social media are now reaching unprecedented rates of up to 26,000 unique viewers a day, making the authorities "really afraid," the source in his office said.

Thousands attend an anti-Kremlin rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navaln in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on October 7, 2017.
Valya Egorshin | NurPhoto | Getty Images

For now, the real danger to Putin is not that Navalny's supporters could immediately vote him out of power, but that they could mobilize and continue to recruit more to their cause, according to Mankoff.

That is, given the Kremlin's domination of the media landscape and Putin's high approval ratings, Navalny is unlikely to pose an electoral threat in the near future, Mankoff said.

However, "by trying to exclude Navalny from the formal political process, the Kremlin risks having him turn into a focal point for discontent across the country and amplifying his message about the corruption and repressiveness of the current regime," he said.

In June, over a thousand were reportedly arrested in anti-corruption protests led by Navalny. A survey by the Moscow-based Levada Center revealed that 38 percent of Russians supported the rallies, Newsweek reported.

Sixty-seven percent held Putin personally responsible for high-level corruption, the report said.

Putin has effectively held the reins of government since 1999.

Earlier this month, hundreds of supporters reportedly turned up for a nation-wide rally demanding that Navalny be allowed to run for president next year. More than 260 people were detained, according to reports.