Russian Activist and Protest Leader Girds Himself for Trial

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MOSCOW -- When middle-class Muscovites massed for the first time on Dec. 5, 2011, chanting "Putin is a thief," many were there because of the anticorruption blogger Aleksei A. Navalny.

Standing on the podium that night, leading them in cries of "We exist," Mr. Navalny radiated loose-limbed confidence, like a man who expected to win. The crowd's cheers made it obvious: If Moscow's desk workers, or "office plankton," were to become an army, Mr. Navalny belonged at its head.

Mr. Navalny, 36, will go on trial on Wednesday morning, facing charges of embezzling $500,000 from a timber company that could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years. And that army is nowhere to be seen.

Fear has transformed the political atmosphere in Russia since that night nearly 17 months ago, as President Vladimir V. Putin has made it clear that he is willing to use harsh means to extinguish street protests.

Around two dozen protesters may face sentences of 10 years or more resulting from a brawl that broke out with the police at a march last May, and two members of the protest band Pussy Riot are serving two-year sentences for performing an anti-Putin song in a church. Stiff new fines have been introduced, and nonprofit groups have been forced to label themselves "foreign agents." Discouraged, people show up in meager numbers for demonstrations these days.

Meanwhile, high-profile opposition supporters have been tracked down individually and issued chilling warnings, either implicit in searches or transmitted directly from the Kremlin. Many of Mr. Navalny's large donors have distanced themselves in recent months, he said. He does not expect them to rise up in his defense if he is imprisoned.

"The majority of the elite or business elite, they are people with liberal views, but they are cowardly, they are simply afraid of everything, they are trembling all the time, so they will be quiet," he said. "They are being quiet now."

He added: "Man is weak. I am not blaming anyone, but man is weak."

Mr. Navalny has spent the past few weeks trying to etch a lasting image in the public imagination before the trial, to be held in the provincial capital of Kirov. He said, not for the first time, that he would like to be president of Russia. He has shared details like what he will pack for prison (slippers, sweat pants, sneakers with Velcro closures).

And he has explained why he decided not to leave Russia with his family, despite the strong possibility that he will be sent to prison.

"I don't want to go anywhere," he told one interviewer. "I want my children to live here and speak Russian. I want to pass on a country which is a little better. I do not want, when I am an old grandfather, for them to say to me that I sat and was silent."

Meanwhile, the state is bracing for a highly charged criminal trial, the first in post-Soviet history of such a prominent opposition leader.

Russian authorities do not hide their loathing of Mr. Navalny. Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the top federal investigator, told a newspaper last week that Mr. Navalny's online anticorruption campaign had made the embezzlement case into a priority for the authorities.

"If a person tries with all his strength to attract attention, or if I can put it, teases authorities -- 'look at me, I'm so good compared to everyone else' -- well, then interest in his past grows and the process of exposing him naturally speeds up," Mr. Markin said.

He went on to suggest that Mr. Navalny had been trained in the West to topple Mr. Putin's government, referring acidly to the semester he spent at Yale University's World Fellows Program, a leadership training program for midcareer professionals.

Mr. Navalny is the first important Russian political figure to emerge from social networks, a platform largely beyond the Kremlin's control.

The son of a Soviet Army officer, he trained as a real estate lawyer and dabbled in both liberal party politics and Russian nationalism. But what made him famous were his online exposés; he sued state-owned companies as a minority shareholder and published their accounting documents online. His following on Twitter and LiveJournal bulged into the tens of thousands, and on the night of the first large protest, he cashed in on it, summoning "nationalists, liberals, leftists, greens, vegetarians, Martians."

And they came.

"He is the only man who can take all the common hipsters and make them go onto the street," said Anton Nikolayev, 35. "He is a figure who could beat Putin if he was allowed."

Mr. Navalny also had admirers in business circles, and as the protest movement gained steam, some of them stepped forward as donors. Last spring he published some of their names, under the headline "16 Brave Ones." The aim, he said, was to demonstrate that his supporters did not fear "some terrible repression."

Roman Borisovich, 43, a Columbia-educated vice president at Russia's largest insurance company, Rosgosstrakh, was one of the donors who agreed to be identified.

"I thought our role was to promote him as much as possible," he said in a telephone interview. "I did not frankly expect this to turn into what it is now."

The day after he gave an interview identifying himself as a donor, Mr. Borisovich said, his supervisor at the insurance company received a visit from three security officers who recommended firing him, he said.

That did not happen, but Mr. Borisovich began to suspect that he was under surveillance. Leaving the country by car last September, he was stopped for a seven-hour search by customs officials who checked each of his compact discs for "extremist materials," he said.

Other donors were reporting pressure as well, he said, so he asked to continue his work from London.

"Every single one of us had something," Mr. Borisovich said. "I just didn't want to sit around and wait for it to materialize into an arrest warrant."

Criminal proceedings against Mr. Navalny had been in stop-and-go mode since 2009, and remained ambiguous for months. The journalist Yevgenia Albats, a longtime friend, said government officials persistently sought to convey a message to Mr. Navalny: he could remain free, and even run for municipal offices in Moscow, as long as he stayed away from protests.

"For months, different people were coming to me, saying, 'Tell Navalny this, tell Navalny that,' " Ms. Albats said. "I said, 'You don't understand Navalny, he doesn't have a master.' " But he adamantly refused to engage in any dialogue, she said, and went on to attend an unsanctioned rally on Dec. 15, in a pointed act of defiance.

By this spring, Kremlin insiders saw little danger that a high-profile trial would reignite the protests.

"They all believe there is no political activity in Russia, that it died," said Konstantin Remchukov, the editor of the newspaper Nezavissimaya Gazeta. "Is it better to try to do something politically important like arrest Navalny? Or could this cause a wave, and a storm? This is the major conversation between them."

"They start with this point," he added, "day after day, and then the decision is taken and the procedural time comes, and they begin to shoot."

In the office of his nonprofit group, before his team packed for the trip to Kirov, Mr. Navalny considered the possible outcomes with his usual detachment. He said he was "almost certain" that he would be sentenced to prison, though a suspended sentence was possible.

Mr. Putin "needs to show his own supporters that he will squeeze these opposition people," he said. "Because after those first rallies in Bolotnaya, there were very big vibrations within the authorities," he said, referring to a square in central Moscow. "Everyone was afraid, they didn't know what was going on, and everyone wanted to secretly meet with me."

From London, Mr. Borisovich will be watching the trial. He has joined the supervisory board of Mr. Navalny's anticorruption fund and continues to support him vocally -- something he feels safe doing from outside Russia. But Mr. Borisovich said he had ultimately decided that he would not do anything that could result in a prosecution or affect his family.

It was equally clear that Mr. Navalny was ready to take those risks. Mr. Borisovich recalled a conversation he had last summer with Mr. Navalny's wife, Yulia, as they celebrated her husband's release from a 15-day administrative sentence.

"I asked her how committed she was to the whole thing: 'Listen, what needs to happen -- when are you going to say enough is enough?' " he said. "She looked at me. She gave me this blank look. She said: 'Never. I will never back down, or ask him to back down.' "

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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