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A Thorn In The Kremlin's Side, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Group Fights On Despite Crippling State Pressure

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny established the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011. (file photo)
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny established the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Four employees are incarcerated, and several under investigation. One is nearing a month on hunger strike, subsisting on water and vitamins as she continues to call for street protests. And the founder sits in a Moscow jail cell still wondering why his face swelled up last month in what officials called an allergic reaction and some of his supporters alleged was a case of deliberate poisoning.

Now, Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation says all its accounts have been blocked as the country’s powerful Investigative Committee proceeds with a money-laundering probe that threatens to deal a debilitating blow to a nonprofit which has for years exposed government corruption and now fights for survival as a self-professed force for elite accountability and political change.

Following weeks of protests for fair elections that the organization has encouraged and the Kremlin slammed as illegal, there’s palpable tension at its Moscow offices and a muted atmosphere among staff members conscious of their jailed colleagues’ absence and the threat of further law enforcement raids.

“There’s fear in people’s eyes,” said Olga Klyuchnikova, deputy producer of Navalny Live, a YouTube channel run by the organization. “Conversations have become quieter, online chats more confidential, and phone conversations less frequent.”

The Anti-Corruption Foundation was founded in 2011 by Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader and a lawyer by training who has doggedly pursued evidence of corruption at the highest level of Russian politics.

Its investigations regularly provoke public uproar over misuse of state funds -- in 2017, a probe into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wealth became a catalyst for a wave of mass rallies that erupted across Russia that March.

Filming at the Navalny Live channel, which is run by the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Filming at the Navalny Live channel, which is run by the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Navalny is now in jail, serving a 30-day sentence for allegedly organizing the latest protests against the exclusion of independent candidates from September elections to the Moscow city council. Of the 30 or so candidates barred from running, five are affiliated with or employed by the Anti-Corruption Foundation -- all but one of them now languish behind bars. The exception, Lyubov Sobol, continues to challenge the election commission even as she wages a hunger strike that some colleagues fear will bring lasting damage to her health.

“Her glucose levels are low, her head is spinning, and she struggles to walk and talk,” said Aleksandra Lukyanenko, an assistant to Sobol, adding that the opposition activist and key leader of the current protests lost 4 kilograms in the first three days of her hunger strike. “But I treat her decision with respect, as do other employees.”

A visibly weak Sobol declined to be interviewed for this article at short notice, moments after she returned from a heated clash at Moscow’s election commission after learning her appeal against exclusion from the September vote had been denied.

Furious Shouting Match At Russian Election Committee
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On August 3, the day Moscow witnessed the latest protests endorsed and promoted by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Russia’s Investigative Committee launched a criminal money-laundering probe against the outfit. It’s the latest blow to hit the the embattled group. Navalny could face seven years in prison if convicted.

According to a statement the Investigative Committee published online, employees of the foundation “received from third parties a large sum of money in rubles and foreign currency which they knew was obtained illegally.” It estimated the laundered amount at 1 billion rubles ($15.3 million).

'Simply A Provocation'

Prosecutors allege that the money was distributed among several banks and then funneled into the accounts of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. The statement did not clarify who the implicated third parties are or which of the foundation’s staff stand accused of complicity in the scheme.

On a recent afternoon at its headquarters in southeast Moscow, some employees noted the dark shadow this new probe casts over a period when the organization is already facing a perfect storm of problems.

“For older employees of the organization this is nothing new -- they’re confident in their innocence and know the books are clean,” said the 24-year-old Klyuchnikova. “This is simply a provocation on the part of the state.”

Klyuchnikova showed RFE/RL the damaged door that masked riot police burst through on July 27 as Navalny Live was live-streaming a police crackdown on the protests in central Moscow.

With a sledgehammer at the ready, masked Russian police officers prepare to launch a raid on the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow on August 8.
With a sledgehammer at the ready, masked Russian police officers prepare to launch a raid on the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow on August 8.

The morning after this reporter’s visit, the office was raided again in connection with the new criminal investigation, as were the apartments of several employees. Various documents and pieces of equipment have been seized from the offices and private homes.

'What Should We Fear?'

Seasoned members of Navalny’s team seem optimistic, noting that the latest probe is nothing new, that their finances stand up, and that a record of their work -- which officially is funded entirely by supporters within Russia -- is published online for all to see.

Leonid Volkov, a project manager at the foundation and the head of Navalny’s thwarted 2018 presidential campaign, called the charge an “absurdity” and suggested it was a bid to portray the outfit as funded and steered from abroad.

“They have dismissed as nonexistent each of the 160,000 or so people who donated to the presidential campaign, each of the 8,000 or so subscribed for monthly donations, and the 70,000 or so onetime donors,” he wrote on Facebook on August 8.

Alyona Medvedeva, a Navalny Live presenter, said she saw the world in “brighter colors” before she got involved in politics as an employee of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Like other employees, she described the work as a lifestyle, not a nine-to-five job, and had few doubts that it will go on.

“What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll jail me? I find that hard to imagine, to be honest,” she said.

Medvedeva quit a lucrative job in event management last year to join Navalny’s team after she witnessed corruption in a hospital where her grandmother was undergoing treatment, and she appeared defiant in the face of the pressure she and her colleagues face.

“It’s possible that someone’s keeping a close watch and can take measures. But there’s a feeling that when truth is on our side, we can believe in what we do,” she said. “We don’t steal. We don’t kill. So, what should we fear?”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.