KIROV, Russia (AP) — Alexei Navalny, an obscure adviser to a provincial governor just four years ago, shot up to become the Kremlin’s public enemy No.1. The web-savvy 36-year old lawyer overcame a state-imposed national media blackout and minimal funds by exploiting his blog and Twitter account to reach hundreds of thousands of Russians.
Navalny went on trial Wednesday in Kirov on embezzlement charges but was granted an adjournment for more time to prepare. Navalny, the opposition’s most popular and charismatic figure, says the charges were fabricated on President Vladimir Putin’s orders. Here’s a glance at his campaigns which provoked official wrath.
Navalny first made a name for himself in 2009 by buying minority stakes in state-run companies and using his shareholder status to obtain internal documents. He then posted them on his blog, accusing officials of stealing more than $150 million from the state-controlled VTB bank and a staggering $4 billion from the oil pipeline operator Transneft.
His findings and rapier-like wit won Navalny a large network of followers, which he tapped for crowd-funding of his Foundation for Fighting Corruption. Its targets range from lawmakers who order luxury cars at taxpayers’ expense to local officials slow to fix potholes. Navalny’s document-based investigations have filled a gap in Russia, where investigative journalism has been severely limited by censorship and attacks on reporters.
While Putin still enjoys approval ratings that would be the envy of any Western leader, the Kremlin-run United Russia party, which includes the bureaucracy nationwide, has been widely despised for corruption, nepotism and inefficiency.
Navalny seized on that anger with a campaign to brand United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves” and urged his followers to vote for any other of the parties running in the December 2011 parliamentary elections. United Russia ended up with its worst result ever and had to rely on massive vote-rigging — documented by independent observers — to retain its majority in parliament.
The egregious ballot fraud in the 2011 parliamentary vote triggered a series of massive street protests in Moscow that attracted up to 100,000 demonstrators who opposed Putin’s return to the presidency. Navalny rose to a rock star status, electrifying crowds by chanting “We are the power!” and claiming that “we have enough people to seize the Kremlin.”
Some said, however, that Navalny missed his chance by failing to enter the 2012 presidential race and focusing instead on promoting an election to an opposition alternative parliament that quickly fizzled into irrelevance.
After Putin won a third presidential term in March 2012, the Kremlin responded to the opposition with a series of searches and arrests of activists, a package of repressive laws that hiked fines 150-fold for participants in unsanctioned prointests and tight new restrictions on non-government organizations.
After a year of dashed hopes and still-born campaigns, Navalny has scored with a recent series of exposés about undeclared foreign assets of top officials and lawmakers:
Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the powerful state Investigation Committee, struggled to respond to documents released by Navalny that showed that he had unregistered real estate in the Czech Republic, as well as a legal firm which allegedly had failed to pay taxes. Bastrykin, whose agency spearheaded the ongoing crackdown on the opposition, hasn’t concealed his personal enmity against Navalny.
Vladimir Pekhtin, the head of the ethics commission in the lower house of parliament, resigned after Navalny blogged about Pekhtin’s luxury property holdings in Miami Beach.
Vitaly Malkin, an upper house member, also resigned after Navalny published documents showing that Malkin owned undeclared business assets in Canada and had an Israeli passport though Russian law bans officials and lawmakers from having foreign citizenship.