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Analysis & Opinion
11.05.11 The Whistleblower's Kompromat
By Andrew Roth

Alexey Navalny, Russia’s anti-corruption crusader, has been hit with criminal charges accusing him of “misusing the public trust,” and threatening a possible sentence of five years in prison. The political origins of the case against Navalny are indisputable, yet political considerations may eventually turn in Navalny’s favor: will the government be willing to let Navalny be shuttled into prison on trumped-up charges if it senses he could play the role of another Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

The opening of a criminal case against Navalny was announced in an interview with Investigative Committee Spokesman Sergei Markin. He alleged that in 2009 Navalny misrepresented himself as an advisor for Kirov Region Governor Nikita Belykh and forced the administrator of the state-owned Kirovles government logging company, Vyacheslav Opalyov, to sign a contract that ultimately lost the company 1.3 million rubles ($43,000). “I can say that Navalny in his own actions used the tactics and means that are used by corporate raiders when they take over companies,” said Markin. Navalny is being charged with “fraud or misuse of trust inflicting financial losses,” that could lead to up to five years in prison if he is convicted.

Navalny and a host of supporters have roundly criticized and ridiculed the government’s charges. Navalny himself called the charges “fabricated” in his own LiveJournal blog yesterday and told Vedomosti that government and business interests were conspiring to discredit him. The governor of the region where Navalny supposedly misrepresented himself as a gubernatorial aide, Belykh, has also called the case “baseless,” saying that the government’s main witnesses were themselves compromised. The press has also been quick to support Navalny, in some cases with a vicious sense of humor. An editorial in Vedomosti grilled the accusations as being petty, saying that the charges being brought against Navalny were similar to those that “would be used against a tractor driver, if he ploughed some woman’s garden for a half-liter of vodka in a government tractor.”

The government’s case is poorly put together, agreed Alexander Glushenkov, a lawyer who has represented Navalny in the past, adding that the while the law in question is similar to fraud, it is “abstract and barely ever applied.” “I really just don’t understand here what sort of misuse of public trust there was. The situation is absurd – it’s a poorly disguised attempt to bring Navalny into court by any means and on any charges,” said Glushenko.

The case’s shaky legal basis bespeaks the political origins of the accusations against Navalny, who is a sharp critic of United Russia, or as he calls it, the “party of crooks and thieves.” Navalny is the best known corruption whistleblower in Russia, using documents provided him as a minority shareholder in Russia’s gas and banking giants Rosneft and VTB to identify and draw attention to massive corruption taking place deep in their opaque corporate bureaucracies. He also founded the Web site Rospil, which invites users to pore over the documentation that is required for each government purchase in order to root out government corruption.

In recent years those who have run foul of the Kremlin have been quick to flee the country. Yet while it might seem like sound judgment to skip town at the moment, Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, said that Navalny was not planning on leaving Russia because of the charges. “Everyone who works in the field of anti-corruption in Russia is always prepared that they might have to leave the country, but nonetheless, I can say that I know he’s not going to leave,” said Panfilova.

The prospect of a drawn-out court case could provoke a political backlash in Russia, where Navalny is particularly popular with a small, but politically active, young elite. With an eye to the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the government may be reluctant to mete out a similarly onerous sentence to a popular figure. Thus while the government is using many of the same mechanisms of pressure that it used against Khodorkovsky, said Olga Mefodyeva, an analyst from the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, she found it unlikely that Navalny will see the inside of a prison cell. “It’s understood that no one is going to put Navalny in prison,” said Mefodyeva. “A criminal case may be opened, but this is a political struggle between Navalny and some members of the government. In the end the current regime does not want to see Navalny in jail, I think least of all Dmitry Medvedev.”

Nonetheless the results of further government investigation will play a role in where the case goes from here. Panfilova suggested that if the evidence against Navalny turns out to be extremely suspect, the case could be thrown out the next day. Yet Glushenkov remains ready for the worst, saying that “the case is so weak that I would say it can’t possibly move forward, but given the situation that I see in the Russian legal system, it’s impossible to say how the matter will play out.”
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