Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny drinks tea while speaking to a journalist during an interview
Alexey Navalny

Drawing furiously on a marker board, Russian blogger and opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny sketches out a tapestry of circles and arrows, a tangled web of money, greed and forestry products. It is exactly the kind of financial wrong-doing he specialises in exposing.

Except in this instance, according to Russian prosecutors, it was Mr Navalny himself who for about four months in 2009 headed this criminal enterprise in lumber.

The case is scheduled to go to trial on Wednesday and Mr Navalny, drawing more squiggles as he talks in his office, is making a last effort to poke holes in the allegations against him. This does not appear to be too difficult.

“Either I stole the money – all Rbs16m [$500,000] of it – or I bought the lumber for an artificially low price, causing damage to the enterprise, and took a percentage. Either I bought it, or I stole it. But I can’t have done both,” he says. “And actually, I did neither.”

But it doesn’t really matter what he did or didn’t do, the blogger argues. “If they want to put me in prison, they will find a way. It’s a cliché to call this Kafkaesque. But that’s what it is – a parody of justice.”

The 99-page charge sheet against Mr Navalny will be read in a court in the town of Kirov, 500km east of Moscow, where he is accused of profiting from a contract between a consulting company run by an associate and a state-owned forestry products company, whose former director is the star witness for the prosecution.

Though the case was dropped in April 2012 for lack of evidence, it was renewed in July last year by Russia’s investigative committee, whose head, Alexander Bastrykin, is a former classmate of President Vladimir Putin and who reports directly to him.

Mr Navalny says this is a blatant effort to silence him and his activities, and few have failed to notice the coincidence that the charge was handed out days after the blogger publicised information that Mr Bastrykin ran an undeclared business in the Czech Republic until 2009, which Mr Bastrykin was obliged later to admit.

Partly for his media savvy, partly for his popular blog which continues to bedevil the ruling elite by publicising official corruption, Mr Navalny has risen to the top of opposition politics in Russia. As well as targeting Mr Bastrykin, in February he in published information on undeclared Miami real estate held by Vladimir Pekhtin, the head of the parliament’s ethics commission, forcing him to step down.

He has also published mountains of information pointing to financial irregularities at Russia’s state companies such as Transneft, the state pipeline operator, and VTB, the state-run bank, which is the second largest in Russia.

But he is best known for taking a leading role in a protest movement that broke out into Moscow’s streets in December 2011 after allegedly rigged parliamentary elections, when he addressed a 100,000 strong demonstration on Prospekt Sakharov in downtown Moscow.

The street protest movement, however, appears to have gone back underground after a number of its leaders – including Mr Navalny – faced official harassment and arrest.

Mr Navalny’s associates say the charges against him are the most concerted effort yet to silence him. Sergei Guriev, rector of the New Economic School in Moscow and an acquaintance of the blogger, says his effervescent charisma is not to be underestimated and that he is genuinely feared in Kremlin circles.

“If Putin steps down for whatever reason and names a successor and the successor gets into a TV debate with Mr Navalny, then the successor will be finished politically,” said Mr Guriev. “And Putin will never debate with him.”

The fear in Mr Navalny’s circle is that he will wind up sharing the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the last man to mount a credible challenge to Mr Putin, who was jailed in 2003 – and remains in a prison camp to this day – on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement and money laundering. He has been named by human rights group Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.

The case against Mr Navalny is similarly flimsy and political, say his supporters.

It focuses on a consulting company called VLK, run by an associate of Mr Navalny, which bought Rbs16m worth of timber from Kirovles, a state-owned forestry products company, between April and September 2009. According to the charges, Mr Navalny embezzled all the money, though he says VLK can provide receipts showing that Rbs15m of the funds were returned to Kirovles, minus a contractually stipulated fee for marketing.

A cursory read of the indictment raises several questions, not least of which is that it fails to establish any formal relationship between Mr Navalny and VLK. Nor does it provide any evidence to back up its assertion that VLK bought lumber from Kirovles at artificially low prices – which in any event seems to be contradicted by the separate accusation that VLK simply stole all Rbs16m worth of product it sold on behalf of Kirovles.

“Any decent prosecutor should at least send this back to investigators and say ‘show some proof’,” said Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of the opposition New Times weekly magazine.

Few are hopeful, however, that Mr Navalny will escape jail – he faces up to 10 years for the charges of embezzlement. And in the past 2 ½ years, Sergei Blinov, the district court judge hearing the case on Wednesday, has issued 130 guilty verdicts with not a single ‘not guilty’ decision, according to an investigation on Monday in the New Times. Mr Blinov declined requests for an interview.

Sergei Dorenko, head of the Russian News Service radio station, said: “If he gets two years its OK. He comes out before the election and he is Nelson Mandela. But if he gets 10 years, it’s bad. Very bad.” 

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