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Final Curtain On A Tragicomic Trial

Packing sweatpants, slippers, and sheets? Aleksei Navalny boards a train from Moscow to Kirov.
Packing sweatpants, slippers, and sheets? Aleksei Navalny boards a train from Moscow to Kirov.
On the eve of judgement day, Aleksei Navalny has some very personal and some very practical matters on his mind.

He's making sure to spend a lot of time with his wife and two children. He's had a thorough medical examination. He's giving final instructions to colleagues in the anticorruption watchdog he heads. He's wondering whether he'll end up in a prison colony "in Chita or in Karelia." He's worried about how he will communicate with the outside world from a prison colony.

And in case anybody's wondering, he will definitely be traveling from Moscow to Kirov with slippers, sweat pants, and sheets in his suitcase.

"It doesn't fill me with joy, but it is stupid to find yourself in a cell without slippers and sweatpants," Navalny told the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" in an interview published this week. "You don't want to sleep on the prison sheets -- so you have to get your own and spread those out."

On July 18, Navalny will finally hear the verdict in the so-called Kirov Forest case in which prosecutors allege he organized the embezzlement of 16 million rubles ($500,000) from a state-owned timber company.

The charges are widely viewed by experts and much of the public as fabricated. According to the independent Levada Center, 57 percent of Muscovites and 44 percent of Russians see the charges as Kremlin-sponsored political retribution against the anticorruption blogger and opposition leader. Just 23 percent of Russians believe the case has any merit.

Nevertheless, few -- least of all the defendant -- doubt that a conviction is coming.

"You know you are innocent and everyone in the courtroom knows you are innocent. The judge and prosecutors know you are innocent. The court officials look at you with sympathy and nod their heads, whispering as though to say -- hang on in there. Nevertheless, it will end with you being handcuffed," Navalny told "Moskovsky komsomolets."

"Of course these are complicated feelings. It is important not to take offense against the whole world."

The case against Navalny has pushed the limits of the absurd. Of the 35 witnesses called by the prosecution, 33 gave testimony that supported Navalny's version of events.

And the prosecution's star witness, Vyacheslav Opalev, appears to have a clear incentive to frame the defendant.

When Navalny was serving as an adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh in 2009, he recommended that Opalev be fired as director of the Kirovles state timber company and investigated for corruption. The company had run up 200 million rubles ($6 million) in losses before Navalny arrived in the region.

Moreover, Opalev was given a suspended sentence in his own corruption trial in December 2012 after pleading guilty to conspiring with Navalny to fleece Kirovles.

The only other witness to give evidence supporting the prosecution's case was Opalev's daughter.

There were also some truly Orwellian moments. One prosecution witness, Kirov Oblast Deputy Governor Sergei Shcherchkov, openly testified in Navalny's favor. But prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov, in his closing statement, used selective portions of Shcherchkov's testimony to suggest he had incriminated him.

Moreover, the judge did not allow Navalny to call a single defense witness. Not one. The court did not commission any expert analysis. None.

"No evidence against Navalny was presented during the trial. No profit was made from the alleged illegal transaction. The case for the prosecution was based on allegations from a local magnate Navalny had attacked for insider dealing," Peter Pomerantsev wrote in an excellent -- and hilarious -- piece on the case.

Of course, fabricated charges against the Kremlin's political opponents are nothing new in Russia. But in the Navalny case -- like in the so-called Bolotnaya trial against protesters who gathered on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration -- the authorities seem to be pushing the envelope of believability into new territory.

The Bolotnaya case is ongoing and has had its share of eyebrow-raising moments recently.

Last week, one of the prosecution's star witnesses, Moscow police Colonel Dmitry Deynichenko, gave testimony that contravened his own police report. He also contradicted himself on the stand on numerous occasions.

In the report on the anti-Putin protests that erupted on May 6, 2012 -- which prosecutors allege was the kickoff of a foreign-backed uprising against the Russian government -- Deynichenko wrote that police encountered "no emergency situations" during the demonstrations.

On the stand, as reported, "he said something else entirely."

So confused -- and confusing -- was Deynichenko's testimony, the online newspaper wrote, that "he went from being a prosecution witness to someone more resembling a witness for the defense."

Will it matter? Probably not. Just like in Navalny's trial, the Kremlin needs convictions in the Bolotnaya case and will no doubt secure them.

Just shy of 10 years ago, Putin cemented his vise grip on power when he was able to have oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion.

It was selective justice to be sure. Any of the oligarchs who earned their wealth in the shady privatizations of the 1990s could have been taken down on similar charges. Khodorkovsky's real crime was opposing Putin.

But if the Khodorkovsky trial a decade ago underscored how Putin and his team were confident and rising, the Navalny case -- and the one against the Bolotnaya protesters -- reeks of desperation.

-- Brian Whitmore

UPDATE: Navalny was found guilty, given a five-year sentence, and taken into custody. From the courtroom, he tweeted the following message to his 369,000-plus followers: "It's ok. Try not to miss me. And most of all, don't be lazy. The toad won't leave the oil pipeline by itself."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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