As anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny entered the Investigative Committee today for questioning, a police "avtozak," or paddy wagon, conspicuously entered the building's courtyard in plain view
of journalists and the opposition leader's supporters.
The message seemed to be clear: Navalny was about to be arrested.
But about an hour later, he emerged from his interrogation as a free man -- at least for the moment. Prosecutors quickly announced
that Navalny had been charged with stealing 10,000 cubic meters of timber products from the state-owned KirovLes company between May and September 2009, and was ordered
not to leave Moscow.
On the surface, the formal charges against Navalny marked a clear escalation in the ongoing battle between the Kremlin and Russia's highest-profile opposition figure. This isn't about spending 15 days in jail for attending an unauthorized demonstration. These charges could result in a decade-long prison sentence.
And the paddy wagon that just happened to show up -- and lit up the Russian Internet with rumors that Navalny's arrest was imminent? What was that all about?
It could have been just a head game. Navalny and Investigative Committee chief Alekksandr Bastrykin have, after all, been playing plenty of those with each other lately.
Navalny spent much of the day on July 28 needling Bastrykin on Twitter
over documents detailing his ownership -- in violation of Russian law -- of a real estate company in the Czech Republic. He went so far as to playfully suggest that the country's top law enforcement official was a "foreign agent" and told Dozhd TV that it was suspicious
that he owned a business and had long-term residence in "a NATO country."
But there seems to be more than just head games going on here.
The whole scene -- the arrival of the "avtozak" coupled with Navalny leaving the Investigative Committee sans handcuffs, albeit charged with a crime that carries a stiff prison sentence -- provides a metaphor for the ambiguity among the ruling elite about how to deal with this man whom the Kremlin clearly views as a threat.
Bastrykin obviously wants to play hardball -- but others apparently don't.
The KirovLes case, first opened in 2010, stems from a period when Navalny served as an unpaid adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh.
Prosecutors initially alleged that Navalny used his position to inflict material damage on the timber company through fraud or abuse of trust.
Belykh himself forcefully dismissed the charges. "Aleksei, when working for the Kirov region, was a member of a working group to reorganize KirovLes and was dealing with the issue of increasing transparency in the timber industry," Belykh said
in December 2010. "Neither the Kirov regional office of the state unitary enterprise KirovLes, nor its founder -- the government -- has any issue with Aleksei."
The investigation was closed several times for lack of evidence -- only to be reopened again.
It was most recently closed in April of this year, sparking a sharp rebuke from Bastrykin himself in June. "There is this man called Navalny," Bastrykin said
at a meeting of regional Investigative Committee officials in St. Petersburg. "Why did you close the criminal case against him without informing your superiors?"
Late last week, reports surfaced that the case had been reopened yet again -- and this time would be handled in Moscow, not Kirov. And when formal charges were announced today, they were more serious than the original allegations.
Prosecutors now allege that Navalny colluded with the head of a state timber company and trader to steal the products, which carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.
In a post on his blog, Navalny offered a detailed rebuttal
of the charges.
As I blogged earlier
, much of the elite -- and some in the security and law enforcement community -- are deeply uncomfortable with the way Bastrykin has gone after the opposition following Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin.
And this case encapsulates those divisions.
Prosecuting Navalny would temporarily sideline the man who rebranded United Russia as the "party of swindlers and thieves." But it would also inflame an already restless society and create another martyr for the opposition -- and in that capacity, Navalny might prove even more dangerous inside prison than as a free man.
-- Brian Whitmore