A Closer Look at the Alexei Navalny Case

The Russians have a centuries-long tradition of government corruption. During the 1990s there was one brief moment during which democratic reforms were attempted, but they failed. By 2000, with the rise of Vladimir Putin, Russia returned to its bad old ways. The current political contest between Putin and Alexei Navalny needs to be understood in the context of Russian society and politics. In Russia today, there are no white knight reformers; just competing factions.

Navalny was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport as soon as he landed on Sunday January 17 from Germany.  Amnesty International immediately declared Navalny to be a “prisoner of conscience.”  In their reportage, Deutsche Welle portrayed Navalny as a brave hero facing “trumped up” charges.  President Biden complained to Putin about his treatment of Navalny and the mass arrests of his followers during their telephone conversation on January 26.  Alexei Navalny is not necessarily innocent of the charges brought against him by the Russian state, however.  According to Russian news service Lenta.ru, Navalny’s arrest was not political; he violated the terms of his ongoing probation for charges of embezzlement and money laundering.

Take for instance the “Kirov Case.”  According to Neva Segodnya (Neva Today) Internet Gazette, between May and September 2009, while working as an advisor to the Kirov regional governor Nikita Belykh, Navalny partnered with Director Petr Ofitserov of Vyatka Forest Products Company and Vyacheslav Opalev, Director of the local bank, Kirovles KOGUP, in order to illegally harvest 10,000 cubic meters (over 13,000 cubic yards) of timber valued at over 16 million rubles ($500,000) on state forest land managed by the Kirovles State Unitary Enterprise in Kirov.  Since there was insufficient evidence to convict, the investigator decided to dismiss the case in April 2012.  Subsequently a complaint was filed against the termination of the case, which was then reopened in Moscow’s Basmanny District Court.  Navalny refused to testify until Basmanny District Court ruled on the case.  One complication in the case is that the person who had originally accused Navalny in 2009 of stealing timber, Vyacheslav Opalev, was later revealed to be an accomplice.

In late 2012 Navalny, Opalev, and Ofitserov were charged under Articles 33 and 160 of the RF Criminal Code, Large-Scale Embezzlement of Other People’s Property. Vyacheslav Opalev pleaded guilty in court on 24 December 2012 and entered into a plea-bargain agreement ahead of the trial.  Opalev was given a four-year suspended sentence.  After an investigation lasting several years, Alexei Navalny and partner Pyotr Ofiterov were finally tried and convicted in January 2013.  Navalny then appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  The ECHR intervened, ruling that Navalny’s rights had been violated since the trial was a “politically motivated, arbitrary interpretation of the law.”  After the ECHR ruling, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the verdict because of ‘corpus delicti’; the evidence was missing.  Of course, the material evidence in this case mainly consisted of the trees that had been cut down years ago.  The Supreme Court ordered the gathering of additional evidence, followed by a retrial.  Yet since no retrial ever took place, Navalny and Ofiterov never established their innocence in a court of law.

Another instance of fraud implicating Navalny involved the Russian division of Yves Rocher.  Navalny’s brother Oleg headed the Internal Mail department of FSUE Russian Post.  He and Alexei registered what was essentially a shell company, the Main Subscription Agency LLC -- in Cyprus.  The involvement of Cyprus, home of the Russian oligarchs’ beloved “Limassolgrad,” is enough to prove he was up to no good.  Oleg Navalny convinced Yves Rocher Vostok’s General Director Bruno Leproux to seal a shipping contract with the Main Subscription Agency instead of Russian Post.  Yet these services were rendered at an inflated cost, and the actual shipping was contracted out, as the Main Subscription Agency totally lacked the ability to provide shipping services.  The final charges filed against the Navalny brothers in Basmanny District Court were for embezzlement of more than 26 million rubles (nearly $850,000).  Both were found guilty of fraud and money laundering.

Alexei received a suspended 3.5-year prison sentence, with five years’ probation, later extended for a year; he appealed.  The European Court of Human Rights eventually ruled in this case, in October 2018.  While the ECHR failed to discover a political motive in the criminal prosecution of Alexei and his brother Oleg in the Yves Rocher case, the ECHR decided that Navalny’s rights were still violated in that he could not receive a fair trial; he was awarded compensation in excess of €80,000 (nearly $100,000.)  During 2020, Navalny repeatedly violated the conditions of his probation, under which he was obliged to sign in at the Criminal Executive Inspectorate (UII) of the RF Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS) twice a month.  Then Navalny was poisoned with Novichok while en route to Moscow -- most likely, by the FSB.  He was immediately transported to Berlin for treatment on August 22.  The requirement to appear at UII was suspended while he was being treated in Germany.  However, in October 2020 the government learned that Navalny had been discharged from the German clinic on September 23, and he could not provide any acceptable reason for failing to resume his scheduled registration appointments at the FPS per the terms of his probation.  It was due to his sustained violation of the terms of this probation that Alexei Navalny was legally detained at Sheremetyevo Airport on January 17.

According to an Arkhangelsk newspaper Ekho Severa, a criminal case under RF Criminal Code Article 159, part 4, Large-Scale Fraud, was initiated against Alexei Navalny in December 2020.  The charge is that 356 million rubles ($4.67 million) of the 588 million rubles ($7.7 million) collected in donations to Navalny’s numerous non-profit organizations was embezzled and used to buy personal property, luxury goods, and holidays abroad.  Navalny is not accused of being the embezzler, but as the head of these charities, he is legally liable.  The corporate thief is his former Regional Director for the Arkhangelsk Region Dmitry Sekushin. One strong indication that the charge has teeth is the fact that Navalny had replaced Sekushin in July 2019 with Andrey Borovikov.  Sekushin had allegedly been pocketing the proceeds from fundraising rallies for the Shies Project, a land reclamation project to clean up an illegal dump in a remote wooded area of Arkhangelsk, next to the Shies Rail Station. Site cleanup will take at least fifteen years, after which the Shies “Eco-Tekhnopark,” is to be developed there in stages, providing Arkhangelsk with a wholesome family recreation destination.

Navalny is being held through February 15 to give Putin’s Kremlin time to try and finally make the many embezzlement and money-laundering charges against him stick.     

Image: Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta