With a list of criminal charges against him, Alexi Navalny has gone from cult blogger to political legend.
For somebody facing multiple criminal probes, Aleksei Navalny seems to be having the time of his life.
The Investigative Committee has accused the anticorruption blogger of a dizzying series of crimes: stealing lumber, fleecing a cosmetics company, embezzling funds from a long-defunct political party, and helping to illegally privatize a distillery. "Cases against Navalny have been flying from the pens of investigators like woodchips from a sawmill," commentator Anastasiya Rodionova wrote recently in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. "There have been meaningful statements from officials and there have been raids on opposition figures' homes, the photographs of which look so impressive on the front pages of the federal newspapers. But the investigations have produced no clear evidence of Navalny's guilt."
Navalny, meanwhile, has been busy producing plenty of clear evidence of apparent law breaking by Russian officials. Using a virtual army of online volunteers, Navalny has been digging up information about the undeclared foreign real estate holdings of Russian officials and posting his discoveries online.
Navalny's campaign has already claimed one scalp, that of United Russia State Duma deputy Vladimir Pekhtin. The lawmaker was forced to relinquish his chairmanship of the Duma's Ethics Committee after Navalny uncovered real estate worth an estimated $2 million that he owns in Florida. In violation of the law, Pekhtin did not include the property -- which includes two condos, a plot of land, and a house with a swimming pool -- on his income and property declaration. Navalny's outing of Pekhtin's Florida holdings came right after President Vladimir Putin introduced legislation barring certain categories of Russian officials from holding assets abroad -- upstaging the Kremlin's efforts to pretend to care about corruption.
Remarkably, the state-run Channel One gave Navalny credit on the air for uncovering Pekhtin's real estate in the sunshine state. Adding insult to injury,a viral video mocking Pekhtin -- splicing up a speech where he claims to "love Russia" and replacing it with "I love Miami" -- has since gone viral. The whole episode made the Kremlin look pretty silly, gave Navalny a big stick to beat the regime with, and presented a dispirited opposition an issue to rally around. "Navalny has manifestly put Pekhtin, the ruling party, and the Kremlin in an extremely uncomfortable position," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote recently in Politcom.ru.
At a time when the Kremlin has pledged to crack down on corruption, it has exposed Putin's inability -- or unwillingness -- to police top officials. And at a time when the authorities are branding NGOs who receive funding from abroad as "foreign agents," one of the top lawmakers in the country is secretly holding multimillion dollar properties abroad. "If Aleksey Navalny has ferreted out published documents, the Russian security services are also perfectly capable of probing officials with regard to their exclusive loyalty to the Russian Federation," Stanovaya wrote, adding that Putin apparently "does not have sufficient resources to move against the bureaucracy."
The multiple criminal cases against Navalny and the Kremlin's newfound desire to root out corruption and force officials to repatriate their assets are two sides of the same coin. The authorities are seeking to discredit Navalny while at the same time co-opting his signature issue. But the effort is clearly backfiring. Nobody believes the Kremlin is serious about corruption, and Navalny's stature is only growing. "Navalny has changed from a cult blogger ... into a figure of federal significance," Rodionova wrote in Moskovsky Komsomolets. "Aleksandr Bastrykin's Investigative Committee is successfully turning him into a legend."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.