He'll get you when you least expect it.

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Putin Goes Medieval on the Russian Opposition

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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For the second year in a row, Russian President Vladimir Putin has left it  until the end of the year to make a surprising decision concerning a major political opponent. In 2013, he suddenly let former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky out of prison and allowed him to fly to Germany -- because, Putin explained, Khodorkovsky's mother was dying in a Berlin hospital and they needed time together. Today, a Moscow court handed corruption-fighting lawyer Alexei Navalny a surprisingly lenient 3 1/2-year suspended sentence -- but sent his brother, Oleg Navalny, to prison for the same term.

Putin presents himself as a war leader, and the hostage-taking of Navalny's brother is an act of war in keeping with the rules outlined in the Kremlin's new military doctrine, which lists internal dissent as a "military danger". It's akin to the actions of medieval kings and modern Middle Eastern dictators -- like Henry II of England in the 12th century forcing Welsh ruler Rhys ap Gruffydd to give up his son, or the practice developed by the Assad regime in Syria of grabbing the family members of Muslim Brothers it was hunting. 

I realize these are strange analogues for the modern leader of a European nation. It's tempting to follow political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann in theorizing that hostage-taking has nothing to do with it and the court verdict was simply the result of a bureaucratic compromise between the investigators, the prosecutors and the judge. "The Russian government system is bureaucratic," Schulmann wrote. "It's not a leader-driven regime, despite what people usually think." 

According to Schulmann, Oleg Navalny, a postal official who ran a logistics company on the side, was the central figure at the trial and had to receive a heavier sentence. Pro-Kremlin columnist Eduard Limonov, too, explained things in these terms:

Oleg worked for Russian Post. And here's what he did: He stole a client from the post office, a big company, Yves Rocher, and passed on this client to a shell company set up by his brother, which was allegedly a logistics company, but in fact a vulgal parasite company, an intermediary that handed over the business to someone who really delivered cargo, did the work. They delivery people started moving Yves Rocher cargoes for a low price, and the brothers enjoyed the profits from the scam. 

So, Oleg Navalny, with his conflict of interest, was the bigger evildoer. Alexei just set up the shell company. So, here's a suspended sentence for Alexei and a jail term for Oleg. 

There are three problems with that logic. The first one is, in the modern Russian context, a technicality. Limonov's paragraph describes a legitimate business deal, though perhaps not a 100 percent ethical one: Oleg Navalny's contract did not ban him from doing business on the side, and Yves Rocher, the French cosmetics maker, admitted during the trial that it suffered no damage from his scheme. The brothers have been convicted simply for doing business -- apparently a crime in the eyes of many Soviet-trained prosecutors and judges.

The second problem is that the Navalny case is not about Russia's icy business climate. It's all about politics. 

Navalny played a key role in the 2011-2012 protests in Moscow, which rocked the Kremlin regime and prompted it to crack down on dissent. In the years since the protests fizzled, Navalny has been the subject of three criminal cases. Last year, he received a five-year suspended sentence on the blatantly trumped-up charge of stealing lumber from a state-owned company. Nine of Navalny's political allies have also been prosecuted on various pretexts. The Kremlin is clearly out to get the 38-year-old Moscow lawyer. And it seems safe to say that Putin is involved.

The third problem with the "bureaucratic" version of the Navalny verdict is that Putin has recently signaled his approval of punishing the relatives of terrorists, the way it's done in Israel. At his year-end press conference, a journalist asked him what he thought of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's practice of persecuting the families of suspected Islamist terrorists. "As a rule, the relatives of people who commit terrorist attacks know about this," Putin said, and referred to the Israeli practice. That shows he's not above attacking his enemies' families.

The Kremlin's hand is obvious in the way the verdict was handled. The week before Christmas, the court announced Navalny would be sentenced on Jan. 15, 2015. His supporters immediately started making plans for a rally in central Moscow, and the government moved to ban rally announcements from online social networks. Facebook initially complied, blocking the original event listing, then followed the example of Twitter and left subsequent announcements untouched. Yesterday, however, Navalny received news from the court that he would be sentenced today.

It looked as though the authorities were intentionally trying to throw potential protesters off the scent -- and then to wrong-foot them with the unexpected sentence. After all, prosecutors asked for 10 years in prison for Alexei and eight years for Oleg Navalny. Nobody had contemplated if they were ready to demonstrate for the activist's little-known brother if he was the only one to go to jail. 

It turned out they would, because they sympathized with Navalny, who tweeted this morning that the verdict was "the vilest possible": 

 "The terrorists have taken a hostage," Navalny ally Leonid Volkov wrote on the new Facebook event page, which remained unchallenged. "They hope to influence Alexei's political activities before the 2018 presidential election, keep him guessing whether his brother would be eligible for early release." 18,000 people signed up to come to Moscow's Manezhnaya square, just outside the Kremlin, to support the Navalnys.

Nowhere near that many actually turned out, but several thousand people were there. So was Navalny, who broke house arrest to attend the rally. As he arrived on the square, he was promptly detained and driven away, apparently to his home. "It means nothing that I've been detained," he tweeted to his supporters. "There's nothing I can do that you can't."

Despite Navalny's bravery, today's protest was not big enough to make the Kremlin truly worried. Police were in full control, detaining 117 people. Putin will probably crack a smile when he hears his aides' report of the tiny rally. He will see his chosen tactic as successful, and he seems intent on keeping Navalny out of jail despite his escapade today. Why make him a martyr if a few thousand active supporters are all he can muster? And, once emotions cool off, won't he have to think about his brother?

Inside his feudal kingdom, Putin's is waging the same kind of hybrid war as in Ukraine: a combination of psychological pressure, old-fashioned brute force and information trickery. So far, his enemies are much weaker, but continuing economic problems may mean someday -- although likely not soon -- Putin will meet his match, and the opposition, remembering all his dirty tricks, will take no pity on him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net