Will crackdown on Navalny backfire?

By Maria Panina and Anna Smolchenko ,AFP

MOSCOW — Russian authorities’ attempts to jail Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and intimidate his supporters could backfire and trigger new political protests amid the most serious financial crisis of Vladimir Putin’s rule. Thousands pledged to take to the streets after Russian prosecutors this month called for the charismatic 38-year-old leader of the country’s beleaguered opposition movement to be sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged fraud. The Jan. 15 rally near the Kremlin walls could turn out to be the biggest demonstration against Putin’s rule since the beginning of Moscow’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine late last year. The demonstration could stir simmering discontent over the collapse of the ruble and growing inflation as oil prices tumble and Western sanctions over Ukraine take their toll. Facebook found itself in the midst of a political storm in Russia this month. First it came under huge pressure from the Russian authorities over a page calling for the pro-Navalny rally on Jan. 15, the day of his verdict. Then it got attacked by the activist’s supporters for having ��no guts�� �X in the words of the founder of Russia’s biggest social network VKontakte Pavel Durov �X after it pulled the page down. After a huge outcry, Facebook allowed Navalny supporters to create a new page, with 30,000 pledging to attend the protest on Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow. Navalny, who shot to prominence during anti-Putin protests in 2011 �X 12 of which have since fizzled out under a Kremlin crackdown, already faced a five-year term over embezzlement last year but walked away with a suspended sentence to general astonishment.

‘No way back’ This time things could be different, observers say. ��This is not 2013. Right now there’s no way back. Right now the stakes are very high,�� said Sergei Guriyev, a prominent Paris-based Russian economist. Observers and supporters have been divided over what punishment will be meted out to Navalny in January.