Aleksei Navalny attends his court hearing on July 2. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)
Aleksei Navalny attends his court hearing on July 2. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

The targeting of Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny

The trial of Aleksei Navalny is coming to an end at the Leninsky District Court in the river city of Kirov, 500 miles northeast of Moscow. Navalny, a charismatic 37-year-old lawyer, was propelled to fame through his activities as an anti-corruption blogger, activist, and a leader of Russia’s opposition movement. Most recently, he pledged to compete in future presidential elections, and sought registration to run in the Moscow mayoral election. Both his activities as a blogger and his budding presidential ambitions have earned him the attention of Russian authorities eager to eliminate any opposition that would shake the political status quo.

Navalny has been exposing corrupt deals in the highest ranks of the political power structure. And investigating powerful interests in Russia can earn someone all kinds of unwanted attention–from being harassed and threatened, to being audited and prosecuted, to getting attacked and even killed.

Navalny initially examined corruption through his blog on the popular platform Zhivoi Zhurnal (Live Journal) and through social media. His followers number in the many thousands. Using his position as a minority stockholder in the state energy companies Gazprom and Rosneft and in Russia’s second largest bank, VTB, to seek transparency, Navalny openly challenged the companies’ management.

In 2008, for example, Navalny publicly questioned why the biggest part of Russian oil was being exported and sold in European markets by a company founded by a close friend of Vladimir Putin. Two years later, the blogger went after the state-controlled oil company Transneft, which had said it had made charitable donations of more than 7 billion rubles in the year 2007, the business newspaper Vedomosti reported. When Navalny asked the company to identify the recipients of those donations, Transneft ignored his inquiry. Navalny then approached major Russian charities for information on their grantors in 2007, and, as it turned out, none had received money from Transneft, local reports said. Because of Navalny’s inquiries, Transneft was subjected to an official audit. Even though results of that audit were made secret, Navalny had rocked the boat with his inquiries, showing that the powerful were not entirely immune from public scrutiny.

In 2010, building on the popularity of his blog, Navalny started a Web-based anti-corruption platform called RosPil–a public repository of tips and evidence of violations within the state procurement system. The project has since been likened to WikiLeaks. RosPil reports have prompted civil servants to remove information about questionable tenders and business contracts from the public space. Its reports have also resulted in the cancellation of dubious tenders and the resignations of their sponsors, news reports said.

As Navalny’s popularity grew, so did authorities’ attention to his activities. But it was not until he became the impromptu leader of December 2011 opposition rallies–when he roused thousands of his Twitter followers to gather in the streets to protest alleged rigging of parliamentary elections–that his persona gained national dimensions. The current criminal case against him is widely recognized as politically motivated and retaliatory–launched to eliminate Navalny’s chances for a political career and, in particular, of becoming an alternative to Putin.

The case started when Navalny began examining the activities of Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the federal agency assigned to the country’s most serious crimes.

In July 2012, the blogger accused Bastrykin of having residential and commercial property holdings in the Czech Republic. As a senior official with access to top state secrets, Bastrykin would be going against Russian norms by holding property in a NATO country. Navalny published documents and a statement from Czech authorities in support of the allegations. Bastrykin has denied having any improper foreign holdings.

In addition, Navalny criticized Bastrykin for threats the investigator made against Sergey Sokolov, deputy editor of the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in June 2012.

Bastrykin apologized for the threats he made against Sokolov, but he lashed out at Navolny by ordering subordinates to restart an embezzlement case against the blogger. (The case had previously been closed after investigators had found no evidence of wrongdoing on Navalny’s part.) The allegations stemmed from Navalny’s pro-bono work in the Kirov region, where in 2009 he was acting as a volunteer aide to the regional governor. Prosecutors now say that, back in 2009, Navalny had defrauded a local state-owned company, KirovLes, of hundreds of thousands of dollars when Navalny allegedly made KirovLes managers sell 16 million rubles worth of timber at below-market prices. This charge was not only denied by Navalny but also by the Kirov regional governor who testified as a prosecution witness.

That the criminal charges against Navalny are motivated by his anti-corruption activities is hardly a secret. Bastrykin’s own spokesman, Vladimir Markin, said as much in an April interview. “If a person tries with all his strength to attract attention, or if I can put it, teases authorities — ‘look at me, I’m so good compared to everyone else’ — well, then interest in his past grows and the process of exposing him naturally speeds up,” The New York Times quoted Markin as saying.

It looks like Russia’s state apparatus has descended on Navalny in a wholesale manner–Bastrykin’s agents raided the company owned by the blogger’s parents, summoned his father for interrogation, and opened two criminal cases against his brother.

“This case is political retaliation against [my] reporting on corruption,” Navalny said addressing the Kirov court, Novaya Gazeta reported. He said the case was a means to distract him from his ongoing anti-corruption investigations, including some involving Putin’s friends. Navalny accused the authorities of using state-controlled television for broadcasting false information about him and his activities so they can vilify him in front of voters. “This case pushes me out of the legal political field since citizens ever convicted of grave crimes are banned from running for office,” Navalny said in court. “I plead not guilty and I am convinced that after this trial–no matter what the verdict–my innocence will be apparent to all.”

In his comments before court in Kirov on Friday–after hearing prosecution’s demands that he be jailed for six years in the embezzlement case–Navalny again denounced the case against him as a plot to airbrush him from the public space and stop his anti-corruption activities. He also tried to rouse his thousands of followers. “I declare that my colleagues and I will do all we can to destroy this feudal system made in Russia, destroy this system of power, under which 83 percent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of half a percent of the population,” Navalny said in court as reported by Reuters. “Anyone who stands on the sidelines will just be helping the disgusting feudal system which sits like a spider in the Kremlin, the 100 families who are sucking the blood out of Russia.”

The verdict in Navalny’s case is expected later this month.

[Milashina reported from Moscow.]