In the latest political show trial in Moscow, Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and charismatic opposition leader, was sentenced to five years in jail – for corruption. Apparently there is no move too cynical for Russian leader and former KGB operative Vladimir Putin.
Also recently, a dead man – Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower who was jailed and beaten to death in prison – was judged guilty of the very embezzlement scheme he had exposed (which was committed, in reality, by top government officials).
Then there’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil magnate, who has been repeatedly jailed in another series of show trials – because he mounted a political challenge to Putin.
These trials – even more than the games Putin has been playing with the American leaker and asylum-seeker Edward Snowden – should signal to President Obama that it’s time to cancel a planned summit with Putin in September. The same mindset that drives the Russian leader to lock up any political opponent ensures that a summit would be a waste of time.
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Just look at the case of Navalny, Russia’s most promising opposition leader and a new kind of Russian politician. He came to prominence after mounting a series of Internet investigations of his country’s staggering official corruption.
When I interviewed the tall, blond, 35-year-old Navalny in Moscow last year, he told me: “This regime is based on corruption.” He was referring to the massive wealth funneled to Kremlin favorites and the disrespect for law. “I focus on this issue,” he said, “and that’s why people appreciate my efforts.”
The anti-corruption campaigner was set to run for mayor of Moscow in September. No question, the incumbent (a favorite of the Kremlin’s) would win. But a strong Navalny showing might have embarrassed Putin – and still could, since his name is already on the ballot. So first the authorities jailed him. Then they suddenly freed him after 24 hours, pending appeal. However, at any moment, Navalny could be tossed back in jail.
The Navalny tale illustrates Putin’s blatant indifference to domestic and international opinion – both are critical of the Navalny verdict. Russian polls show that 56 percent of Russians believe Navalny’s arrest was either aimed at halting his anti-corruption crusade or preventing him from running for mayor. But Putin, confident he can manipulate the Russian system, doesn’t care.
Which brings us to the question of whether Obama should cancel the summit in Moscow, where he is scheduled to stop before attending a September meeting of leaders of the Group of 20 (the major industrialized and developing nations) in St. Petersburg. Just as Putin imagines he can manipulate Russians, he seems to believe he can manipulate Obama as well.
After Putin was re-elected president early last year, Obama attempted (for a second time) to reset U.S.-Russian relations. Yet, in a put-down to Obama, Putin declined to attend a May 2012 meeting of the Group of Eight leaders held at Camp David. The excuse he gave was so silly as to be demeaning.
The White House, and Secretary of State John Kerry, has invested much effort in urging Moscow to help mediate a compromise solution to the Syrian civil war, yet Putin has steadfastly backed President Bashar Assad. Obama dearly wants to negotiate another round of nuclear-arms cuts with Putin, but the Russian has made clear he is not interested.
Putin seems to believe that Obama will come calling, no matter how many times he insults him. It’s long past time to show Putin he is wrong.