MOSCOW, Russia — Some believe it’s remarkable Alexei Navalny remains free.
The anti-corruption blogger has played a pivotal role guiding the protest movement that erupted in Moscow in December 2011, and has almost single-handedly cast fresh light on Russia’s pervasive culture of official graft.
But his luck may be running out: On Wednesday, the country's leading opposition activist goes on trial for embezzlement in a case he and his supporters claim is a political reprisal for ruffling the Kremlin’s feathers. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The criminal charge — the first of three against Navalny to reach trial — appears to be the authorities’ most significant effort at silencing the charismatic, 36-year-old whistleblower who devised the ruling United Russia Party’s now-ubiquitous moniker, “Party of crooks and thieves.”
Some of his more recent allegations of corruption within United Russia led to the resignation in February of the parliament’s ethics committee chief, Vladimir Pekhtin, a senior party member, after Navalny publicized documents appearing to prove the former lawmaker owns undeclared luxury property in Miami.
“Navalny is the single-most dangerous opposition figure for the authorities,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank in Moscow. “In their ongoing battle against the opposition, the authorities are focused above all on dealing with him.”
Prosecutors allege Navalny stole about $500,000 worth of timber from a local state-controlled firm in 2009 while serving as an adviser to the governor of the Kirov Region northeast of Moscow. The case has been opened and closed numerous times in the past year and a half, but now critics believe the authorities finally seem poised for payback.
Even Navalny’s family has fallen under suspicion. His brother Oleg, a deputy director of the state-owned postal service EMS Russian Post, is also facing criminal charges over his alleged defrauding of a client of nearly $2 million (Navalny has also been charged). And late last year, investigators searched a factory owned by Navalny’s parents in connection with the same case.
What’s unclear, however, is how far the authorities are willing to go to punish the poster boy for Russia’s liberal opposition. Although Navalny has said he expects a guilty verdict, he’s uncertain whether a conviction will mean a prison term or a suspended sentence.
“Since this case carries clear political meaning, the decision will not be made by a judge, but ordered by somebody else, from somewhere else,” Vadim Kobzev, Navalny’s lawyer, said in an interview.
Some observers say the charges, rather than possible jail time, are the main message for an activist who’s made no secret of his political aspiration. Russian law prohibits anyone with a criminal record from running for election.
If found guilty, Navalny would be automatically disqualifed from running for a seat in the Moscow city legislature or, more importantly, for mayor.
“The authorities are not so stupid as to make him into a martyr,” said political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, a veteran dissident. “The task is to discredit him politically and psychologically by accusing him of financial irregularities to prevent him from running for public office.”
A lawyer by training, Navalny is fighting back. Slamming the charges as fabricated, he has posted financial documents pertaining to the case to his website and urged people to “draw their own conclusions.” He claims the evidence fails to prove any wrongdoing.
Kobzev says the publication was less of an effort to influence any future decision than an attempt to draw attention to the “absurdity” of Russia’s notoriously corrupt courts.
“The prosecution has all the materials, but investigators have simply closed their eyes to all of it, as if it doesn’t exist,” he said, adding that Navalny would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in the event of an “unsatisfactory” verdict.
Navalny has also made a political gamble. Days ahead of the trial date, the blogger drew what some have said is a trump card: declaring he wants to run for president, during an interview with the liberal TV Rain channel.
Piontkovsky says the move is aimed at raising the stakes for the authorities.
“It’s quite useful [for Navalny] that foreign newspapers would rather write about the trial of a presidential candidate than a trial against a popular blogger,” he said.
However, the strategy may be tenuous at best for a liberal activist whose voice is resonant in Russia’s few urban centers, but has yet to be widely heard by the rest of Russia.
In the country’s hinterlands, conservative and pro-government values are more deeply ingrained, and the internet — Navalny’s medium — remains less prevalent than the state-controlled television channels from which most Russians still get their news.
A recent survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency found that while Navalny’s name recognition has increased in the past two years, only about 14 percent of Russians would currently vote for him in a presidential heat, down from around 32 percent in 2011.
Those numbers reflect the general fate of the anti-Kremlin movement Navalny helped launch. Amid what many describe as an ongoing official crackdown on political dissent, the street opposition has seen its enthusiasm fade considerably in the past year.
The Kremlin may be banking on just that by pursuing the case against Navalny now, Pribylovsky says.
“This is an opportunity to prosecute him during a lull in the protest movement, and the authorities are hoping it will pass with very little fanfare,” he said.
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As the trial date approaches, observers have begun to draw connections between Navalny and the last charismatic would-be politician who appeared to pose a serious threat to the Kremlin: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who has languished for a decade in a far-flung prison.
His most recent sentence, handed down in December 2010, was for the same charge of embezzlement Navalny currently faces.
Navalny himself, in his most recent interview with the liberal New Times magazine, invoked the jailed former oligarch, who funded a variety of programs aimed at social and political reform.
Just like Khodorkovsky, who refused to flee Russia even as signs of his imminent demise become increasingly apparent, Navalny seems prepared for the worst.
“Most of all, they want me to run away,” he said. “But I will not run away, and I will not emigrate. Everything in life has a price.”