On December 15, on the eve of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's annual televised call-in program with the public, blogger and shareholders' rights activist Aleksei Navalny called on his readers to badger the prime minister with questions about alleged embezzlement at the state-controlled oil pipeline company Transneft. His goal, he wrote, was "to make the crooks nervous."
Navalny alleged on his blog last month that executives at Transneft embezzled approximately $4 billion in public funds in transactions connected to the construction of the East Siberian Pacific Ocean pipeline.
Navalny made his allegation based on what he describes as internal Transneft documents showing that the company's executives used contracts with bogus subcontractor companies to siphon cash into offshore bank accounts. (You can view the documents in Russian on Navalny's website.)
Navalny also posted a pretty slick video on YouTube spelling out the allegations:
WATCH THE VIDEO (IN RUSSIAN):
Navalny has made waves before. As Jason Bush writes at "Business Standard," he helped expose a shady $650 million deal at VTB Bank to buy Chinese oil rigs, which resulted in the sacking of the head of the bank's leasing division. Navalny also took the state-run oil giant Rosneft to court for refusing to disclose the minutes of its board meetings.
Journalists Sergei Guriyev and Oleg Tsyvinskiy wrote recently in "Vedomosti" that Navalny's message is beginning to resonate with a Russian public that is growing weary of graft and corruption:
Before the crisis it was possible to resign oneself to this. After all, rising oil prices and high rates of economic growth assured a growth in the revenues of all strata of Russian society. (It's another matter that in the absence of corruption both growth rates could have been even higher and investment in infrastructure could have been greater and more effective.)
Now growth rates will in any case slow down -- and the 'corruption tax' will the center of the Russian middle class' attention. The increase in Navalny's popularity is, therefore, absolutely legitimate and if there had been no Navalny someone else would have become the best known Internet fighter against corruption.
Be that as it may, the Russian authorities already appear to be preparing the ground to silence, or marginalize, Navalny, who is currently in the United States on a fellowship with Yale University.
Prosecutors say they are investigating allegations made by a businessman in Kirov Oblast who claims that Navalny cost the state-run timber company KirovLes $32,000, at a time when he was advising Governor Nikita Belykh, a former opposition figure who President Dmitry Medvedev appointed in December 2008.
Writing on his blog last week, Belykh forcefully defended Navalny:
So far, those who have gone public with allegations of wrongdoing -- starting with Aleksei Dymovsky, the original YouTube cop to prosecutors like Grigory Chekalin -- have themselves been accused of wrongdoing, harassed, and often prosecuted.
But he whistle-blower syndrome in Russia continues to spread nonetheless.
-- Brian Whitmore