Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Russia’s Putin beyond Constitutional Government: The Case of Aleksei Navalny

With a judge handing down a five-year suspended prison sentence, a fine of 500,000 rubles (about $8,400), and a ban on participating in the upcoming presidential election in 2017, Aleksei Navalny could feel just how power can be wielded by high government officials, including even presidents—power ultimately backed up by stern men with guns with the legal right to use lethal force. This, I submit, is what government comes down to—it’s bottom line.

The true look of governmental power. (Sergei Brovko/Reuters)
Were the prosecution and judge intent on punishing Navalny for fraud—if those agents of the ruling party really believed that he had “embezzled” 16 million rubles ($500,000) “by purchasing wood from a state-owned company at below-market rates and then reselling it at market value,” the fine would surely have been more than a mere fraction.[1] Instead, the main thrust of the sentence was geared to keeping him under control for five years and barring him from politics. Because this emphasis is not aligned with the nature of the alleged crime, the sordid scent of abuse of power by the Kremlin is detectable. That a similar judgment against him in 2013, with a five-year suspended sentence, was almost word for word that of the verdict in February, 2017 suggests adds fuel to the contention that the issue was not the crimes, but, rather, something else—something political.
When the head of a government has not only the media under his control, but also the court system, the power of said government cannot reasonably be considered to be contained by constitutional limitations. “I have the right to take part in elections, according to the Constitution, and I will fight for that,” Navalny told journalists in the courtroom in Kirov.[2] Yet a political right is meaningless when the ruling person or party gets away with acting beyond constitutional bounds. The New York Times essentially makes this claim in reporting, ‘Putin has gone to great lengths to root out all genuine opposition in the country. Major television stations have been put under the government’s control and openly critical political figures have been marginalized. Several prominent journalists, politicians and human rights activists have been murdered under mysterious circumstances, with many of the cases remaining unsolved.”[3] In a country where “dissidents are frequently silenced, exiled or killed,” the expectation that the ruling power will heed constitutional constraints can only be naïve. Without such limitations, the true nature of governmental power—issuing in poisoning or prison—can be glimpsed.
Ultimately, governmental power comes down to being able to use force to kill or imprison. From this bottom-line, it is truly miraculous, given human nature stimulated by the intoxicating scents of power and conceit, that constitutional governance had achieved so much in the world by the twenty-first century. Yet for all this height, it is telling how trigger happy even heads of governments can be—not to mention police agents themselves.

[1] Ivan Nechepurenko, “Aleksei Navalny, a Putin Critic, Is Barred from a Presidential Run,” The New York Times, February 8, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.