Putin's thorn: Alexei Navalny, Russia's foremost opposition activist, risks jail again

In a small Soviet-era courtroom in Kirov, 800 kilometres east of Moscow, the lone candidate with a long-shot campaign to replace Russian President Vladimir Putin is fighting to stay out of jail.

Alexei Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years, publicly calling the him “corrupt” and accusing him of “stealing” and of supplying his friends with lucrative government contracts.

Now Navalny is being retried on five-year-old charges of embezzlement.

“There are no ifs — of course, they will find me guilty,” Navalny told CBC News during a break in the trial.

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny, 40, a lawyer and political activist, intends to run for president of Russia in elections in early 2018. (Jean Francois Bisson CBC)

“Even though everyone understands — everyone in this office, including the prosecutor’s office, including the judge — everyone understands I’m not guilty, despite this, I will be found guilty, that’s why this trial is happening.”

He stands out for refusing to be intimidated in an increasingly silenced and marginalized opposition. His anti-corruption foundation is squarely aimed at wealthy Russians close to the president.

‘Even without new evidence, without proof, they need another verdict to convict me and to have a legal ground to prevent my campaign.’ - Alexei Navalny

For that, Navalny says, he’s been jailed, held under house arrest, followed, wiretapped, and now faces a new trial on old charges, just as he launches his candidacy for president.

He knows the risks. An opposition colleague and friend, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered two years ago. And another Kremlin opponent, Mikhail Kasyanov, was spied on and outed on a sex tape last year in a tryst with his mistress.

For violations of his right to protest, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay Navalny more than 63,000 euros ($ 88,665 Cdn) Thursday. Russia has three months to appeal.

Navalny’s original embezzlement charges relate to a lumber business deal, when he worked as a volunteer assistant to a Kirov governor.

In 2013, he and a co-accused were convicted. Navalny given a five-year suspended sentence in what many believe was a politically motivated verdict, meant to try to prevent him from running for mayor of Moscow.

Then in February 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia had denied Navalny a fair trial.

In November, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but in the process ordered a new trial on the same charges.

Weeks later, Navalny launched his 2018 presidential campaign.

But first the opposition activist would have to navigate the retrial, which resumed this week with a predictable set of tactics and legal gamesmanship.

Navalny at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport

Navalny leaves Moscow Tuesday for court in Kirov, 800 km northeast of Moscow. Two court-ordered bailiffs escort him; three more officers await him in Kirov. (Susan Ormiston CBC)

To “force” Navalny to travel the 800 kilometres from Moscow to attend court, uniformed bailiffs arrived at his office Tuesday, surrounded him and escorted him to the airport, even though he’d already agreed to turn up and had purchased air tickets.

They kept an eagle eye on him on the plane, and more police awaited him at a Kirov hotel.

“I’ve come here voluntarily from Moscow, and they’re running after me, a bunch of bailiffs, five of them!” he told the court Wednesday afternoon. “This is some kind of strange monitoring, a manipulation of the process.”

The Kirov court this week was part law, part theatre. Media cameras were allowed in, as is customary in Russia, and Navalny’s assistant was live tweeting developments.

During frequent, long breaks (almost more breaks than court time), Russian media kibitzed and laughed at the Facebook comments on a live stream of the proceedings. 

Break in court in Kirov, Russia

Media are allowed to live stream the Kirov court, which becomes a platform for Navalny supporters and foes to comment live online. (Susan Ormiston CBC)

In a media scrum when CBC asked Navalny to comment in English, he answered in Russian : “I’m not going to speak in English right now, because Rossiya TV is filming right now, and they will just show it later, calling me a traitor because I am speaking in English.”

Navalny indicated he would speak to us outside the court later.

Russian state prosecution team

Prosecutors in the retrial of Navalny in Kirov declined to comment on their case Wednesday. The state said it had new evidence when it ordered a retrial. (Susan Ormiston CBC)

Two Russian prosecutors, in formal blue uniforms would not agree to an interview, referring CBC to the press office. The state alleges it has new evidence to present, a claim to which Navalny scoffs.

“Even without new evidence, without proof, they need another verdict to convict me and to have a legal ground to prevent my campaign.”

The Kremlin denies it has any political motivation to retry Navalny and co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week the Russian administration is “uninterested” in the trial and has “no position” on it. 

Navalny is the only candidate so far to challenge the president. 

Vladimir Putin President of Russia

Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet said whether he will seek a fourth term in office. Presidential elections are expected in March 2018. (Susan Ormiston CBC)

The odds of him  winning are inestimably long. President Putin — should he seek a fourth term, which most believe he will — enjoys consistently high approval ratings, even while the Russian economy falters and polls show Russians are much less enamoured with their local governors and the state Duma.

“Is it realistic the power change will happen through the election in Russia? Not really”, says Navalny’s campaign manager Leonid Volkov in Moscow.

Leonid Volkov

Campaign manager Leonid Volkov in Moscow says Navalny’s run for the presidency continues despite the trial, with a plan to open 70 political offices across Russia. (Corinne Seminoff CBC)

“But will the election contribute to the possibility of the power change? Yes of course.”

The 36 year old Volkov, juggles two mobile phones and works a laptop stickered with a logo of Putin BOP, which means crook. Navalny’s candidacy, he vows, will ignite change.

‘It’s not a fair election, and the president elected in this election is not a legitimate one.’ - Leonid Volkov, campaign manager

“We are younger, 30 years younger than Putin. At the end of the day, the victory will be ours.”

He’s preparing for a long and nasty campaign. “We stay flexible and adapt.” A recent crowd funding blitz for Navalny was so successful — 14 million rubles ($ 306,177 Cdn) that Volkov claims the online pay platform, Yandex, was pressured to thwart them.

 It changed its rules on Jan. 23 to prevent people from donating on Yandex to political causes. Yandex confirmed the rule change to CBC, but wouldn’t comment on why.​

‘They want opposition’

Navalny’s candidacy could be useful to the Kremlin says Volkov, to bestow an image of a free opposition, even if practically they are shackled.

If Navalny is not allowed to run, “it’s not a fair election, and the president elected in this election is not a legitimate one.”

That’s the Navalny team’s faint hope.

But the candidate is not popular in many places. In a taxi headed to court, the 25-year-old cab driver Ilya says: “Navalny is bad, all Liberals are bad.”

Must stay in Kirov

Meanwhile, at the end of an 11-hour day in court, the defendant Navalny is agitated, popping out of his chair again to tell the presiding judge he refuses to sign his order. 

Alexey Vtyurin

Russian Judge Alexey Vtyurin presides over Navalny’s retrial. At times stern, at times bantering with defendants, he rejected most defence motions to strike wiretapped evidence or withdraw restrictions on Navalny’s movements. (Jean Francois Bisson CBC)

Judge Alexey Vtyurin ruled Navalny must stay in Kirov, for at least the next 10 days, including weekends.

“It’s clear what this is all about, to keep me from travelling,” says Navalny.

“We announced we would open a St. Petersburg campaign office this Saturday, and now the court comes out with this order to stay put at the Kirov Hilton, which is just ridiculous.”

His team fully expects that even when the verdict comes, it won’t be the end of their legal distractions.

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