THIN LINE: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets members of the Russian Geographical Society’s expedition on the Gogland Island in the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea on Monday. Picture: REUTERS
THIN LINE: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets members of the Russian Geographical Society’s expedition on the Gogland Island in the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea last week. Picture: REUTERS

VERDICTS are coming thick and fast from Russia’s modern-day show trials. But after a year-long clampdown on opposition, the deplorable five-year sentence for the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny marks a defining moment in the era of President Vladimir Putin.

The jailing of the first popular opposition leader to emerge from outside the Kremlin’s "managed" democracy is a point of no return for Putin. It turns what one Russian academic called "dictatorship with the consent of the governed" into plain authoritarianism.

It is also risky. Navalny has the potential to become a martyr figure and an imprisoned leader-in-waiting. September’s election for Moscow mayor, for which he was registered as a candidate, will inevitably appear illegitimate without him. That could trigger new street protests. It could also tarnish Sergei Sobyanin, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, seen as a potential Putin successor.

The West must now rethink how it deals with Russia. The US "reset" did little to counter Russia’s more repressive turn since Putin returned as president. The European Union seems incapable of a response beyond (faintly) anguished words.

Yet the Putin circle may be harming its own future prospects more than any western response could. Its clampdown is chilling investment from international and domestic sources, worsening Russia’s economic slowdown. Moscow’s already deeply undervalued stock market fell after the Navalny sentencing. The business community’s discomfort is becoming audible.

Here lies great danger for the Kremlin. Failure to reignite growth could undermine the grand bargain of rising living standards in return for limits on democratic freedoms. And that is the very foundation of Putinism.

London, July 19