The Russian justice system is increasing the pressure on the Kremlin's critics. Prominent blogger Alexei Navalny has now been charged with embezzlement, but human rights organizations fear another political trial.
He has published 2,672 posts in six years, and received around 1.5 million comments, according to Alexei Navalny's profile on the blogger platform LiveJournal. The fact that he has around 270,000 followers on Twitter also suggests he is a man whose voice counts in Russia.
But on Tuesday (31.07.2012) the Russian judiciary accuses Navalny of large scale embezzlement. As an advisor to the governor in the Kirov region in 2009, he is said to have misappropriated 16 million rubles, (400,000 euros, $491,000) from state timber company KirovLes.
From blogger to opposition leader
The investigation has been suspended twice, only to be re-opened in May 2012. But the original charge has been altered, so that Navalny could face a ten-year prison sentence. He is currently not allowed to leave Moscow.
The blogger denied the charges. "There is nothing I can be arrested for," he said, adding that the charges were politically motivated. In a recent newspaper interview, he described the authority's actions as "revenge" against him and other critics of the Kremlin.
In a very short time, Navalny has become a prominent opposition figure, despite not belonging to any party.
"He managed to generate huge popularity from the blog," said Hans-Henning Schröder, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). The Levada Center, aMoscow research institute, said that while only 6 percent of Russians knew his name in spring 2011, 34 percent do now.
Acclaimed by DW
Navalny initially made a name for himself as an anti-corruption activist. His online project RosPil aims to expose state companies that embezzle public money. Both this project and Navalny himself won Deutsche Welle Blog Awards ("the BOBs") in 2011.
But Navalny has gained more political importance in the past year. He was the first blogger to describe Russia's ruling United Russia party a "party of gangsters and thieves." The phrase has stuck to the party, and they apparently hate Navalny for it. A party official recently announced a new website for people who want to sue the blogger.
Navalny also played a prominent part in the protests against suspected fraud in Russia's recent parliamentary and presidential elections. He appeared at several rallies, denouncing President Vladimir Putin more strongly every time. Some observers in Moscow were even beginning to see Navalny as a possible challenger to Putin at the next election.
"Navalny is certainly one of the most famous public figures in the protest scene," said Jens Siegert, Moscow director at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a political organization affiliated with the German Green Party. Navalny also represents the new generation of Russian regime opponents, which, according to Siegert, distinguishes him from other opponents who have been active since the 1990s, and who no longer enjoy much support from the Russian population.
The accusations against Navalny have drawn criticism both inside and outside Russia. "They want to remove him as an opponent," said Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva, head of the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.
Maria Lipman, a political expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the charge was an attempt to "keep Navalny on a leash, so he can be arrested any time." She said it is a warning to him and other members of the opposition movement. Lipman also pointed to laws recently introduced in Russia that restrict the freedom of assembly. "You have to see the charges against Navalny in that context," she said.
Schröder had a similar interpretation, "I can only see it as political intimidation." He added that action against the blogger has been timed "very carefully," to come between two waves of protests.
"It all obviously has a political character," said Siegert, comparing the charges against Navalny with the trial against the punk band Pussy Riot, some of whose members may face a seven-year jail term. Navalny could expect a similar punishment.
Some German politicians have also come to criticize recent developments in Russia. "It's no isolated case, and I fear there could be something systematic about this action against non-governmental organizations and regime opponents," said Andreas Schockenhoff, a German government coordinator for German-Russian social cooperation projects. He condemned the charge against Navalny as an "attack on active Russian citizens, who are meant to be discouraged from expressing criticism."