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Rebel blogger

December 23, 2011

Alexei Navalny is being compared to Boris Yeltsin and Julian Assange. The Russian blogger has called for demonstrations against alleged election fraud and the Kremlin - and could give the pro-democracy movement a boost.

Alexei Navalny
Navalny's online fame could fuel further protestsImage: DW

When Russia's famous blogger and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was released from jail on Wednesday, he was met with flowers and cries of joy. The entire event was broadcast live on the internet.

Navalny had been detained for 15 days after he and other opposition leaders demonstrated against parliamentary elections earlier this month that they say were rigged. In those 15 days, he said, Russia had changed, and he announced that he would take part in another demonstration "for free elections" in Moscow on Saturday.

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to show up, just as they did two weeks ago. Navalny's involvement could boost those numbers even further because he's someone who can mobilize people.

Not your typical career politician

Tall, blond and striking - that's how Julia Ioffe, an American journalist in Moscow, described Navalny in her profile of the blogger for the magazine The New Yorker earlier this year.

Demonstrators stand in front of police line during a mass rally to protest against alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections
Navalny says the protests have changed RussiaImage: dapd

"He's the only politician in today's Russia that has potential," she said, explaining that he comes from the middle class and understands middle-class concerns.

It was Navalny who first described the governing party, United Russia, as the "party of crooks and thieves." Thanks to the Internet, that expression is now widely used. And it was Navalny who asked the Russian people to go to the polls and document irregularities. Tens of thousands heeded his call.

Navalny is a lawyer and a blogger, not a career politician. He doesn't have a party standing behind him. He studied law and stock trading in Moscow and later spent time in the US at Yale University. Between 2000 and 2007 Navalny was involved in the social liberal Yabloko party but was kicked out for his nationalistic views.

Navalny describes himself as a "reasonable nationalist." He regularly takes part in the marches organized by right-wing extremists. He attended one just last month when the march was directed against the financing of the Caucasus. Circulating the internet are videos from the past in which Navalny expresses support for the use of weapons against illegal immigrants. Today he distances himself from those statements but contends that in a multiethnic country like Russia, it shouldn't be a taboo to talk about problems with immigration.

The reporter Julia Ioffe is convinced that Navalny's views aren't just shared by the working class, but also the middle class. She says his participation in the far-right marches is just "a cynical maneuver" to win a broader popular support.

Online success

Navalny's blog has been read by hundreds of thousands of people. Above all, Navalny fights against the pervasive corruption in his country. He founded the Internet portal RosPil to expose the machinations of Russian state companies. Some of his efforts have been successful.

Screenshot of RosPil
The RosPil site won a BOB blog award this yearImage: Rospil.info

The best known example was with the state oil company Transneft. According to Navalny's calculations, the company misappropriated some $4 billion (3 billion euros) during a project to build a pipeline from eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. In response, the government in Moscow ordered an investigation, the results of which are still pending.

Again and again, Navalny is compared to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. As with Assange, legal efforts have been made to get him to stop. A case against him, however, was dropped. In the summer of 2011, the RosiPil project was awarded one of Deutsche Welle's blog awards, The BOBs, for the best use of technology for social good.

These days people in Russia are wondering if Navalny could be a presidential candidate. For the coming election, however, it's too late. The deadline to submit a candidate application ended while the blogger was in jail.

Author: Roman Goncharenko / hf
Editor: Gabriel Borrud