Putin arch foe on trial in city where no one cares

By Shaun Walker in Kirov

Alexei Navalny wants to be president of Russia, but he is facing a 10-year jail term. Photo / AP
Alexei Navalny wants to be president of Russia, but he is facing a 10-year jail term. Photo / AP

It is a trial that his supporters hope will one day be seen as a pivotal moment in Russian history, but many people in Kirov do not even know that it is taking place.

In the dock is Alexei Navalny, the charismatic anti-corruption blogger who has become the most high-profile critic of President Vladimir Putin. Navalny is accused of embezzling the equivalent of nearly $600,000 while acting as an adviser to a local timber company in 2009. If found guilty, he could be jailed for up to 10 years.

In a brief hearing yesterday, Judge Sergei Blinov adjourned the case for a week to give Navalny and his lawyers more time to study the vast amount of case materials.

Blinov has never given a not-guilty verdict in his career.

"I'm not going to say the usual banal phrases: that I'm not guilty, that this whole case is fabricated," said Navalny inside the courtroom.

"I think anyone, even without a legal education, can read the case for themselves and see that it is nonsense."

Navalny, who has said he wants to become president of Russia, arrived in Kirov 90 minutes before the hearing on an overnight train from Moscow, accompanied by several dozen supporters, activists and journalists.

He was greeted by a small but boisterous crowd at Kirov train station, leading some to make comparisons with Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader who famously arrived in revolutionary St Petersburg by train in 1917.

But there is a long way to go before Navalny's dreams of overthrowing the Kremlin regime can be considered even vaguely plausible.

He is a celebrity with a rock-star following among the young, internet-savvy generation in Moscow and other big cities, but in the provinces he is unknown.

Many people in Kirov said they had never heard of Navalny, while others were vaguely aware of his existence but thought he might be an oligarch, or a corrupt local official.

"I know that there is a case going on, but I prefer not to follow it, politics is a dirty business," said Eduard, a local interior designer. "We have a saying - the less you know, the better you sleep."

Kirov, a dilapidated provincial city of muddy potholed roads and crumbling buildings, was famous as a Tsarist-era place of exile for dissidents and revolutionaries.

Satirical author Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, known for his acerbic musings about the Tsarist regime, spent several years banished to the city in the 1850s, during which time he worked for the local governor in the building that now houses the courthouse where Navalny is standing trial.

Before the trial, a small but dedicated band of Navalny's followers has spent a week in Kirov trying to drum up support for the activist among the locals, with only minor success.

"About 30 per cent of people here have heard of him, and of those, only a few know the details of the case," said one of them, Nikolai Lyaskin.

"It's not a case of being pro-Putin or anti-Putin, people have just been put into a state where they simply don't care about politics and assume that everyone is cynical and corrupt. We are trying to tell them that here they have a chance to look at things for themselves and make up their own minds."

But the majority of locals who passed the court yesterday morning looked on in bemusement at the travelling circus of political passion.

Shouts of "All for one and one for all" and "Putin, resign" were enthusiastically repeated by travelling activists but drew only bemused half-smiles from the majority of locals.

Not everyone was indifferent. A group of portly babushkas working at the city's Trifonov Monastery confided that they were covert supporters of the blogger.

"We're not supposed to say anything or we'll get in trouble," one of them said in a whisper. "But of course we know who he is, we have the internet. We support him."

Around the corner from the courtroom, activists had set up a stand bearing the inscription "Putin is a thief", plastered with information about alleged corruption within Putin's inner circle.

Navalny's investigations have proved embarrassing for the Kremlin on more than one occasion. Recently, a leading MP for Putin's United Russia party, Vladimir Pekhtin, was forced to give up his parliamentary seat after Navalny's team uncovered more than US$2 million of undeclared property he owned in Florida.

But Pekhtin has been given a new job as a board member of RusHydro, the state hydroelectric company.

A spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said last week that Navalny's "teasing" of the Government meant that the case against him had been pursued with extra vigour.

Despite the lack of interest from many Russians, the case has caused dismay among the urban intelligentsia.

Former Finance Minister and close Putin confidant Alexei Kudrin said the case had no basis and would affect the investment climate in Russia.

Writer and opposition activist Boris Akunin said jailing Navalny would radicalise the opposition and cause the Government problems.

"[Putin] is revelling in his greatness and thinks he will live forever," wrote Akunin on his blog. "But he doesn't see anything, doesn't hear anything, doesn't understand anything."

- Independent

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