Alexey Navalny, the activist and lawyer sentenced to five years in prison by a Russian judge just yesterday, has been released pending his appeal, opening the door for him to become Moscow's next mayor. The surprising, if temporary, reversal was mostly likely intended to quell demonstrations like the one that took over central Moscow last night in protest of the verdict. Around 200 supporters of Navalny were detained by police during an "unauthorized" rally on Thursday, though they have all reportedly been released, as well.
Navalny has not said whether he will re-join the mayoral race, but he did appear to suggest that he would in a tweet sent after his release, saying "We had a breather and now back to work. Campaigning, stands, leaflets – this is what we need. A campaign doesn’t run itself," Navalny is not allowed to leave Moscow as condition of his probation, but the court ruled that he is still eligible to run while his case is under appeal. The vote will be in September.
The entire campaign now becomes a extra tricky situation for Vladimir Putin's government. Most observers say the charges against Navalny were fabricated to keep him out of Russia's politics. Now he's being given a reprieve on the grounds that keeping him jail would rob him of the right to run for mayor. Navalny's presence would add legitimacy to the race, but if he loses to the pro-Putin incumbent the opposition is still likely to question the fairness of the results. And Navalny somehow wins, he would still face the possibility of losing his appeal —and the world watching as the Mayor of Moscow is thrown back in jail on a questionable charge.
The situation is also complicating other matters for Russia, specifically their on going fight with the United States over Edward Snowden, another man who claims he's being persecuted by his government. President Obama and other world leaders are going to St. Petersburg in September for the G-20 summit (just days before the mayoral vote), and there are hints now that Obama might cancel a planned one-on-one summit with Putin while on that trip. It seems neither side wants to get in a debate over their now famous dissidents.