MOSCOW — Russia’s top opposition leader went on trial Wednesday in Kirov, a provincial capital nearly 1,000 kilometers northeast of his power base in Moscow.
Last year, Alexei Navalny angered Russian President Vladimir Putin for leading mass street demonstrations in Russia’s capital. Navalny’s anti-corruption blog has drawn as many as a million views from Russia’s Internet savvy younger generation. The Wall Street Journal newspaper has called Navalny “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.”
Wednesday in Kirov, near the edge of Siberia, Navalny pleaded not guilty in Lenin District Court to charges that he stole half a million dollars worth of timber from a state logging company when he worked for the Kirov regional government four years ago.
Before the trial, Navalny, a charismatic 36-year-old, declared that he plans to run as a candidate in Russia’s next presidential elections, five years from now. Today, he called the trial “a setup” to oust him from politics.
In response, Judge Sergey Blinov told Navalny to stop calling the trial a political trial.
In Moscow, Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition politician, said the trial is all about politics.
“The goal of the authorities is, first, to make it impossible for him to participate in elections, especially in Moscow, where he is quite popular,” said Ryzhkov, who is co-chair of Russia’s Republican Party. “The second goal, if they imprison him, is to stop his activity on the Internet, because he is mostly active on the Internet. And the authorities’ third goal is defamation, to discredit him.”
Many analysts saw Wednesday’s court case as the biggest trial against a political rival of President Putin since the arrest 10 years ago of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the richest man in Russia.
“The case of Khodorkovsky shows us that this is very serious, that Putin has no mercy against his enemies, and he will try to make sure that they all are at least politically destroyed,” said Dmitry Suslov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
Kremlin targets NGOs
The trial comes as a crackdown continues on Russian nongovernmental organizations. On Wednesday, inspectors visited the offices of Transparency International, the anti-corruption group, and the Levada Center, Russia’s leading polling group.
At a press conference in Moscow, Tatyana Lokshina, an official with the Russian branch of Human Rights Watch, accused the Kremlin of trying "suffocate" civil society by demanding that NGOs produce thousands upon thousands of pages of documents.
“It’s not just about Navalny," said opposition politician Ryzhkov. "In general, the authorities are waging a campaign of discrediting all the leaders of the opposition, trying to cast them as radicals, crooks, and irresponsible people who want only to harm Russia.”
But government supporters say that the Kremlin is merely trying to determine which Russian groups receive foreign support. They say such groups should declare themselves to be “foreign agents.”
"Not guilty" not likely
As for Navalny, they say he now has a chance to clear his name in court.
“Of course, we can say much about him as a fighter against corruption, but if you start to fight against corruption, then you should probably be, above all, clean yourself,” said Ekaterina Stenyakina, a leader of Molodaya Gvardia, a group that supports the Kremlin. “If anyone called [Navalny’s work] a phenomenon, then the phenomenon is over. This person’s guilt has been established in corrupt activities. It’s been proven. And now we’re waiting for the court’s decision.”
Navalny himself has told reporters that he fully expects to be found guilty.
Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, researched the 130 rulings made over the last 18 months by Judge Blinov.
Every verdict was: “Guilty.”