As the Kremlin gears up for Putin’s last re-election bid in 18 months, anti-graft crusader Alexei Navalny has emerged as the conduit of choice for rival factions to scoop dirt on each other as they jostle to retain their fiefdoms. While Putin has largely stayed above the fray, anonymous tips and research by Navalny’s staff of 30 have led to a string of revelations about the extravagance of some of the Russian leader’s closest allies, including a new luxury home for his premier, army contracts for his personal chef and private-jet travel for the show dogs of a top official.
Since 2011, when Navalny tried to parlay his popularity as a litigious stockholder in state-run giants like Gazprom and Transneft into a political career, he’s been detained numerous times, held for a year under house arrest and been convicted of fraud twice. He says the charges were trumped up to bar him from running for office, like he did 2013, when he nearly forced a run-off in the Moscow mayor’s race against Putin’s handpicked incumbent.
Navalny said suspended sentences spared him from jail, but his brother, who was also convicted of fraud, is serving two-years “like a hostage.”
Alexei Navalny said that he has no ties to the anti-secrecy group [Wikileaks].
Though hailed by fans at home as a Russian Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s bedeviling Clinton’s campaign, Navalny said that he has no ties to the anti-secrecy group and that his fund’s work differs in a fundamental way -- it relies on open sources and citizen researchers, not on hacked data.
He also rejects domestic critics who accuse him of working on behalf of U.S. interests, as Transneft CEO Nikolay Tokarev did in 2011, after Navalny completed a fellowship at Yale University and then helped lure tens of thousands onto Moscow’s streets for the biggest anti-Putin protests ever.
As for the U.S. claims of Russian collusion with Wikileaks, which the Kremlin denies, the activist said they may be right.
A few months ago, such an accusation seemed like “an entirely unfounded conspiracy,” Navalny said. “But now, given how apparently synchronized Wikileaks is with the false propaganda of Russian media like RT and Sputnik, there are reasons to assume that such cooperation is likely.”
Vice President Joe Biden said Oct. 15 the Obama administration will respond to Russian hacking “at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”
Such a threat raises the possibility that the U.S. might have secret details of financial dealings by Putin’s inner circle that could be more politically damaging than anything Navalny has unearthed, according to Vladimir Rimsky, a corruption expert at the Indem research group in Moscow.
“It could be a disaster if the U.S. gets a hold of something like that,” he said.
For now, Navalny said he’s happy to continue being a thorn in Putin’s side.
Last week, he published a report on a taboo subject for Russian media -- the president’s family, specifically the flow of millions of dollars from state companies into a foundation run by Putin’s youngest daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. Reports like that may not show wrongdoing, but they’re embarrassing for a privileged class that’s used to operating in the shadows, according to Rimsky.
“Rule No. 1 isn’t to come clean, it’s to avoid getting caught,’’ he said. “Everyone would like Navalny to shut up.”