You might think that someone who’s been tried, convicted, and sentenced twice, has seen his brother imprisoned on questionable charges, and lives in a country where investigative reporters and political activists have been killed with impunity would seek to avoid the limelight.
If it was someone other than Aleksei Navalny, you’d probably be right.
The 39-year-old lawyer, blogger, and former businessman had long struck a chord of dissent across a swath of Russian society. He dubbed the Kremlin-backed ruling political party the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.” He helped rally unprecedented antigovernment street protests in 2011 and 2012.
But it’s the investigations that he and his organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, have conducted into corruption at the highest levels of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia that have resonated most both at home and abroad.
This year alone, Navalny and his team published detailed investigations examining:
* the Moscow region mansion allegedly owned by Putin ally Vladimir Yakunin, who later was pushed out of his job as chairman of state-owned monopoly Russian Railways, which he had headed for a decade;
* a $600,000 luxury wristwatch sported by Putin’s chief spokesman Dmitry Peskov, as well as allegations that he honeymooned with his new bride on the Maltese Falcon, a massive yacht costing 350,000 euros a week;
* the huge, pagoda-style mansion of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Moscow’s outskirts, which Navalny’s team valued at around $18 million. Real estate records showed that Shoigu’s daughter became the owner of the property in 2009, at age 18.
Taking Aim At Chaika
The latest blockbuster investigation released earlier this month took aim at an official with comparable ranking in the hierarchy of Russian authority: Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.
Navalny’s investigators allege that one of Chaika’s sons has illegally privatized Russian industrial facilities and used proceeds to invest in a luxury hotel in Greece and a villa in Switzerland. The other son won illicit state tenders for construction and development projects in Russia, the investigators charge.
The 43-minute Russian-language film has garnered more than 3.5 million views since its release on YouTube on December 1.
Chaika described the allegations as "a hatchet job, which wasn't done using the money of those who carried it out.” He blamed American businessman William Browder who has been instrumental in getting Western governments to impose sanctions on Russians deemed involved in the death of a whistleblowing lawyer. Browder has denied involvement.
Navalny could not be immediately reached for comment, but one of his main investigators, Georgy Alburov, made clear that the group had no intention of stopping its work.
“Sooner or later we will dig up something else up because corruption is so common in Russia today that you barely need to dig with a shovel…and you immediately come across someone like Chaika,” he said in an interview published by Russian website obzor.press on December 8.
Since Putin became president in 2000, the number of outlets for independent, nongovernment investigations -- into crime, corruption, or anything else -- has dwindled sharply. Among media, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta is one of only a few still doing substantive corruption investigations.
Navalny started out as a gadfly shareholder activist before turning to unearthing suspicious bank transactions, real-estate acquisitions and shell-company money laundering involving some of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen and top politicians. The list of those he has scrutinized includes Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, billionaire tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, and Russia’s top investigative official, Aleksandr Bastrykin.
2011 Street Protests
Navalny entered the political arena when he helped rally tens of thousands of people in street protests over fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections and against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 -- the largest public challenge in the former KGB officer’s career. He challenged the Kremlin favorite in a 2013 election for Moscow mayor and came in second, with more than 27 percent of the vote.
He’s been arrested numerous times, convicted twice, and prosecutors have also gone after his brother, Oleg, who remains in prison -- a “hostage” held as leverage against Navalny, supporters say.
For many Russian observers, the fact that Navalny has persisted in his investigations is intriguing in its own way -- particularly after the killing of liberal political opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. His assassination in February just meters from the Kremlin walls sent shock waves through the country.
“Before Nemtsov was killed, I would say there were a certain level of people who were somewhat untouchable, and Navalny and Nemtsov are at that level, but that calculation is completely gone,” said Karen Dawisha, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, and author of the 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? “I hate asking that question: why he’s still around?That brings out the superstitious person in me.”
But, she told RFE/RL, the dynamic between opposition figures like Navalny and the Kremlin is more complicated than outsiders perhaps realize.
”The regime certainly calculates that the loss of a significant person would only worsen its status in the West,” she said.
Roman Borisovich, a former Russian insurance executive and longtime donor to Navalny’s projects who now lives most of his time in London, said Navalny’s notoriety and fame provides some protection from the danger of being assassinated, like Nemtsov.
“Regime change is a very dangerous word but Navalny has never called for any violent manifestations, or violent protests. By far he would never contemplate any idea of a revolution, of an armed uprising,” Borisovich said in an interview with RFE/RL.
The fallout from the release of Chaika is still being felt. The Kremlin has tried to downplay the film. No Russian television channels are showing the documentary. Last week, a festival that included the film in an online award nomination received a warning from the Culture Ministry about improperly distributing the festival’s films.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky appears prominently in the beginning of the film, and Navalny has publicly questioned Medinsky’s connections to Chaika’s sons.
“You can be an opponent of the regime and you can expose the corruption of the regime in all kinds of different ways,” Borisovich told RFE/RL, “but he is hoping -- and this is debatable whether this is naïve or not -- he is still hoping for a peaceful transition, for a regime change that is driven by the people,by the impoverishment of the Russians, by the Russians opening their eyes and discovering that corruption has become a cancer for society.”
Yelena Panfilova, who heads the Russian office of the German-based anticorruption advocacy group Transparency International, said that Navalny had already accomplished plenty, and that change was happening slowly in Russia.
“In the end, this isn’t a question fighting corruption for the sake of fighting corruption. It’s in the name of the country’s survival,” she told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “Because if everything stays as it is now, then sooner or later, it will all plunge into an abyss in which nobody -- even the bloodsuckers themselves -- wants to end up.”
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service