Anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny was back in court on February 16 to face charges of slandering a WWII veteran in the latest stage of a full-scale media campaign by the Kremlin to discredit its most vocal opponent.
Navalny called the veteran a “traitor” in a tweet and faces a fine of RUB950,000 ($13,000) and up to two years in jail if convicted. There have been three days of hearing and the judge is expected to pronounce judgement on February 20. In Russia some 98% of cases end in conviction.
The case comes in the midst of an onslaught by state-owned media that have been sullying Navalny's name and linking his activities to foreign intelligence agencies. While the Russian state-owned press has largely ignored Navalny until now, it has gone on the offensive since Navalny called for two mass protests in January.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the West over the weekend, claiming it was using the issue of jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny to “contain” Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also launched a new rules of the game hard line foreign policy with the West at the start of February, where the Kremlin says it will no longer tolerate any criticism or sanctions.
The slander charge is more of the same. WWII plays a special role in the Russian popular psyche as despite the Hollywood movies portraying Allied bravery against the Germans, it was Russia that bore the brunt of the Nazi aggression. Some 25mn Soviet citizens died in what Russia calls “the Great Patriotic War”, of which about 13mn were Russian. Great Britain and the US lost under half a million each as the western front was locked in a stalemate, whereas the eastern front became a meat grinder. About eight in ten Russians in their 20s died during the fighting and nearly every family in Russia was touched by personal tragedy during the war.
In this context, slandering a veteran is a very damaging charge in Russia and designed specifically to undermine Navalny's limited popular appeal amongst ordinary Russians. Recent polls by independent pollster the Levada Center found that Putin’s popularity has fallen by only one percentage point during the recent unrest and that the bulk of the population remains indifferent to Navalny fate. Those Russians that have strong opinions about Navalny are evenly divided between those that support him and those that disapprove of his actions.
The slander case could add two years to the 2.8-year sentence he already received on February 2 and is widely seen as a forgone conclusion. That would keep Navalny in jail until after the 2024 presidential elections.
Other charges are being prepared against Navalny, who is also accused of “embezzling” money from a charity he set up to support his anti-corruption work and using its funds to pay for things like “luxury apartments” and “foreign holidays.”
In June 2020 Navalny tweeted that the 94-year-old Ignat Artemenko was a “corrupt lackey” after the veteran of the partisan actions in Belarus against the Nazis appeared in an RT video promoting the changes in Russia’s constitution that cancelled term limits on Putin’s presidency.
“Oh, here they are, darlings. I must admit that the team of corrupt lackeys looks rather weak. Look at them: this is the shame of the country. People without a conscience. Traitors,” Navalny wrote on Twitter.
The prosecutor contends that this post contains “deliberately false information.” Navalny’s legal team argued that his words amounted to an insult, but not defamation. They also claimed that the case was politically motivated, aimed at stopping Navalny from running in future elections.
“Navalny did not slander the veteran, but expressed his attitude toward people reading the preamble to the Constitution,” his lawyer Olga Mikhailova said in court on February 16 as cited by RT. “I believe it is necessary to acquit Navalny.” In response, the prosecution claimed that the opposition figure was out of his mind for thinking a WWII veteran was a traitor to the country.
“Navalny's words border on insanity, which would be an excuse for the defendant, but they are not,” the prosecutor said. “What was the defendant hoping for?”
On February 5, the first day of the hearing, Navalny accused Artemenko's family of “selling” their relative, telling them they would “burn in hell.” The session saw numerous interruptions, due to Artemenko falling ill and a poor internet connection to witnesses.
February 12, the second court date, was equally eventful. This time, Artemenko was not present and instead presented a written testimony via the judge, Vera Akimova. During the trial, Navalny was reprimanded multiple times for interrupting the judge, as well as witnesses.
At one point, he accused Akimova of conducting an interrogation like in a “fascist commandant's office.”
“I ask permission to address you not as 'Your Honour,' but as 'Obersturmbannfuhrer,'” he said, telling the judge that she would look good next to a machine gun, RT reported.