Prison or presidency for 'Russia’s Kennedy'?

Charismatic opposition leader Aleksey Navalny is on trial in the provincial capital of Kirov, 900km from Moscow. He is controversially accused of stealing timber worth 16 million roubles in 2009; if found guilty, he will spend his next few years behind bars. Local journalist Ekaterina Loushnikova met some of his supporters and opponents.

Dictates of the heart

‘Putin — thief!’

As deafening as the first thunder in May, the simple chant carries from a crowd gathered by the old courthouse. Back in the 19th century, this was the residence of the Kirov governors, and Tsar Alexander II stayed here. Now the building is the venue for the controversial trial of Aleksey Navalny, who very recently announced his intention of becoming president of Russia.

Kirov has for the last few weeks witnessed an unfamiliar parade, with journalists from across the whole world — 200 TV, radio, internet and print media companies — descending on the city. To get into the court on the first day, they had to start queuing the night before, writing their number in the queue on scraps of paper or their own palms. The court has only 60 places, so it was the fortunate few that actually managed to get in, using their bodies, tripods and TV camera equipment to push their way through to the door.  

The rest had to content themselves with interviewing supporters and opponents of the accused. The demonstrators had set up a noisy, brightly coloured camp along both sides of Spasskaya street, the banners of the opposing groups making it look like two armies about to go into battle. Everyone, indeed, was ‘armed’ with whatever he/she could find – posters, placards and other kinds of propaganda. Opponents of Navalny from the little known organization ‘Right Track’ even brought a log and a saw, a colourful demonstration of the supposed Kirovles carve-up.

‘Do you really believe that Navalny stole the timber?’ I asked a young man with a tattoo on his left hand, a possible hint that he had recently been in prison.

‘Of course!’ said the young man without hesitation. ‘For the money he stole you could have repaired 5 km of road and built 30 hockey pitches. He didn’t only steal the timber, he betrayed his country. Navalny is an American spy, trying to impose American values on Russian people, but we are a spiritual people and for us money is not the most important thing.’

‘How much were you paid to come here, if it’s not a secret?’

‘Nothing at all!  I am following the dictates of my heart!’ The young man was deeply offended by my suggestion and hurried back to his mates in ‘Right Track.’ There weren’t many more like him: a little man with a flag, a broad-shouldered lad with a poster, a fair boy lazily sawing the log and a few other unimpressive characters.

 

Ivan – a son of Russia

Navalny’s supporters outnumbered his opponents, and were much more active. Over 100 people had come from Moscow, Petersburg, the Urals and the Volga region to support him on the first day of his trial, though their ranks rather thinned out after that, leaving only the most devoted and hardy. I noticed an elderly man with a poster declaring ‘Kirov is not Golgotha — we won’t allow the crucifixion of mind, honour and conscience!’ He stood in the street opposite the courthouse on every day of the trial, from early morning until the evening, like a sentry on guard.

‘Ivan, a son of Russia,’ he introduced himself. ‘I’ve come from Moscow: I was born here but have lived in Moscow for many years.’

‘So Ivan, son of Russia, has come to stand up for Aleksey, son of Russia?’

‘That’s it, for our Alyosha [Rn affectionate diminutive] who is honest and incorruptible.’

‘Don’t you get tired standing here all day?’

‘I’ll stand for a month if I have to.  Many people come to talk to me and I tell them that an innocent man is on trial for political reasons.’

‘Navalny — is he a writer?’  

On the first day not everyone in Kirov knew who Navalny was. 

‘I’m not interested in politics.  I’m a student and I’m late for a lecture,’ said a young girl with pigtails, obviously taken aback by my question.

‘He’s probably a writer, perhaps a poet, but I don’t know…’ an educated man in glasses was frowning as he tried to remember.  ‘What did he write?  A thriller?’

‘He’s a sportsman, a boxer,’ said a young athletic-looking man confidently, his biceps and triceps bulging, ‘a world sports star.’

‘I did hear something on the TV,’ mumbled a toothless old lady with a shopping bag containing a white loaf, kefir, potatoes and a packet of toffees. ‘I think he stole some timber. If that’s so, then he’ll go to prison.  I’ve been alive 80 years and never stolen anything.  In our day the punishments were much stricter: a handful of grain would get you 15 years and if you were late for work, you’d get 10.  The rules should be strict – Stalin was right.’

The old woman’s voice shook with admiration and indignation.

Stalin’s gone to Denmark

As it happens, I spent some time in the office of the Kirov communists with a Danish journalist.  He was genuinely amazed at the local communists’ ardent love for Stalin: there was a portrait of him on the front of the Communist Party building, portraits on the wall, calendars, postcards and teeshirts.

‘How can you love Stalin so much?  He did away with millions of people during the Great Terror.’

An elderly communist with a bald patch decides to answer the journalist’s question condescendingly, as if he was sharing basic truths with a child. ‘Well, for one thing that was state policy, and it was necessary so Russia could be transformed from a peasant country into an industrial power. It was to neutralise the socially dangerous elements in society – the bourgeoisie, the rich peasants, the nobility, officer class and others.  And anyway it was nothing like 50 million people, that figure was simply fabricated by the corrupt liberals like Governor Belykh and his adviser Aleksey Navalny. It was only 3 million, and this is backed up by NKVD [secret police] documents.’

‘Did Navalny really steal the timber?’ asked the Danish journalist, anxious to steer the conversation into slightly calmer waters.

‘They’re all crooks,’ offered Aleksey Votinsev, a young communist leader, in support of his elderly comrade. ‘Two of Nikita Belykh’s advisers are already in prison for crimes relating to Kirovles and Arzamastsev, the head of the property department, is on the Interpol wanted list, so Navalny is the fourth adviser to be accused of criminal activity.  The liberals are no better than “United Russia” – they’re all crooks and thieves and we’re against them all, because the communists are for the people!  Navalny will go to jail if he’s guilty – so what?  He’ll be nearer the people that way.’

The Danish journalist was given a volume of Comrade Stalin’s writings as a farewell present. It was a gift he couldn’t refuse and now Stalin has gone to Denmark.

An ineffectual manager

Other views were expressed in the office of the socialist party, ‘Just Russia’.  Here portraits of the party leader Sergei Mironov graced the walls: he is surrounded by the people and the leader of the local regional division of the party Duma deputy Sergei Doronin, both in white overalls at a pig farm.  The socialist deputy owned a large agro-holding called ‘Absolute-agro.’

‘You can’t imagine how easy it is in Russia to get rid of someone who becomes inconvenient.  Prosecutors, the police, civil servants and “United Russia” party officials - they’re all in it together’ Sergei Doronin, Just Russia party

‘I know Navalny.  He visited our pig farm complex.  He’s a good lad. Nikita Belykh entrusted him with the modernisation of the Kirovles enterprise.  He was to put the sales in order so that the revenue went into the regional budget, rather than people’s pockets.  But the forestry managers effectively refused to cooperate with the new working conditions and the reform failed. Navalny is probably not a good manager and he didn’t take account of the local conditions or the way people work, but he’s no thief.  You can’t imagine how easy it is in Russia to get rid of someone who becomes inconvenient.  Prosecutors, the police, civil servants and “United Russia” party officials - they’re all in it together. The real judge in this trial is not Sergey Blinov, but someone quite different….You know who I mean?’ The deputy looked meaningfully at the portrait of Vladimir Putin.

The case of the minced meat

Judge Sergey Blinov conducts the case calmly and in a businesslike manner, as if trying a presidential candidate was as commonplace for him as washing his hands before a meal. But until recently Judge Blinov was dealing with cases of a very different kind. In the local town of Kumena, for example, a man had stolen 5 kgs of mince, 1 kg of herring and 8 eggs out of his neighbour’s fridge. Judge Blinov convicted the offender, but he was given a suspended sentence as he had pleaded guilty and cooperated with the investigating officer. What will happen to Navalny who didn’t want to cooperate or to plead guilty to stealing timber?  Will the judicial meat grinder not make mincemeat of him?

‘36 forestry managers have been called as witnesses for the prosecution.  By some strange coincidence they all seem to have suffered from partial or total amnesia.’

36 forestry managers from far-distant districts of the Kirov oblast have been called as witnesses for the prosecution.  By some strange coincidence they all seem to have suffered from partial or total amnesia.

‘Winess, do you remember what prices you were offered for the timber when you worked with the Kirov Timber Company?’ asks Judge Blinov.

‘No, your honour, I’ve forgotten!’ the witness smiles nervously, rubbing his huge hands together. The forester had clearly never been in a courtroom before and, in his embarrassment, had no idea how to behave. People in gowns or the blue uniform of the prosecutors made him uncomfortable, because he’s much more used to dealing with logs and planks. 

‘Your honour, the prosecution requests permission to read the witness his statement, as he has partially forgotten what he said.’

Each time the judge allows the request, despite protests from the defence.

Two comrades

On the 9th day of the trial Governor Nikita Belykh is called as a witness. He has recently returned from an official visit to China to attend the trial of his former adviser and comrade in opposition. Judge Blinov is obviously uncomfortable at having to interrogate the head of the Kirov oblast.

‘You may refuse to give evidence against yourself or close relatives and you are entitled to ask for an interpreter.’

A smile plays on the govenor’s lips – the smile of an experienced spectator who knows exactly what the outcome of this comedy will be. 

‘What was Aleksey Navalny’s official position in the government of the Kirov oblast?’ the prosecutor asks.

‘He had no official position: he acted as my adviser on a pro bono basis.  He was offered a position, but refused it.’

‘Could he give orders to civil servants?’

‘No, this was not in his remit.’

‘Tell us about the state of Kirovles in 2009, please.’

‘It was a loss-making enterprise with very considerable debts and in need of restructuring. The reforms were not Mr Navalny’s idea, because everyone knew how things stood.’

Mr Navalny himself intervenes. ‘Did the director of Kirovles or any of its employees every complain to you that I was forcing them to sell timber at less than market value?’

‘I received no such complaints.’

‘But they could have complained?  By requesting a meeting with you, for instance.’

‘Of course they could.’

The lawyer then asks ‘Do you consider that Navalny’s actions damaged the economy of the Kirov oblast?’

‘I have no such information. I know that the Property Department is considered an injured party in this case, but I don’t know what expert analysis has been carried out or why this conclusion was reached. To do that I would have to read the case files and this is not one of my hobbies.’

After the interrogation, Nikita Belykh hurriedly left the courtroom.  The journalists followed him like hunters after game, but failed to catch up with him. He obviously had no wish to speak to the press. He got into his car and was driven away.  

The prisoner

Governor Belykh’s former adviser, Andrei Votinov, was brought to the courthouse in special prison transport and with a police escort. He looked shrunken and downhearted. The badge on his prison uniform gave the number of his brigade in the open prison at Omutninsk.  Votinov was charged with crimes in the Kirovles case and found guilty a year ago.  He was accused of extorting 10 million roubles from the Kirovles director, Vyacheslav Opalev.

Opalev is a man of unremarkable appearance, simple and not very articulate, but in the Kirov forests he became a figure that only be described as demonic. To judge by the Kirovles case files, all the governor’s advisers extorted money from him, bribed him and induced him to take part in their criminal plots.

‘Your honour, Vyacheslav Opalev is dishonest and disreputable,’ says prisoner Votinov, a touch nervously.  He looks scared inside the ‘cage’ he inhabits in the courtroom. ‘Opalev supported the reforms in the timber industry in word only. All the time he would do his best to put a stop to them, as they represented for him the threat of losing both his job and his income. He knew of the plan to sack him and appoint me in his place.  And, by the way, the charge sheet in my case was based solely on Opalev’s evidence, but his evidence was false. I consider that if Opalev is called as a witness for the prosecution in this case, he could mislead the court. I respectfully request permission to read out a statement.’

The respectful request was refused on the grounds that it had no direct bearing on the Navalny case.  The former adviser didn’t argue.  A few months of prison had wraught very considerable changes in him: the formerly cheerful and confident young man has become a haunted, obedient prisoner, used to answering ‘Yes, sir!’ 

‘Are you afraid of a Russian prison?’

‘Good question!  Next!’

‘Do you really want to become president?’

Navalny gives me a look which is difficult to describe in words.

Could this possibly be the future for the opposition leader Aleksey Navalny?

‘I have no doubt that I shall be found guilty,’ said Navalny to the journalists in the lobby of the courthouse during a break in proceedings. ‘What will be interesting is whether I get a suspended sentence or not.’

‘Are you afraid of a Russian prison?’

‘Good question!  Next!’

‘Do you really want to become president?’

Navalny gives me a look which is difficult to describe in words.

The Russian Kennedy

Every day, after many exhausting hours in the courtroom, Navalny has unplanned meetings with people who have been waiting for him in the square outside.  There was a rumour that Navalny would be able to help and some of them have brought him their problems from thousands of kilometres away. 

‘I’ve come from Saratov,’ an elderly man in a hat talks quickly and nervously.  ‘My son has been put in prison, but I know he hasn’t done anything.  The police beat him up, so he pleaded guilty to a crime he didn’t commit. I hope Aleksey will be able to help.  After all, he’s in a similar situation.’

‘God help Alyosha,’ sighs an old lady in a headscarf.  ‘What can I do?  I’m no one.’

‘Now, now, granny, you mustn’t talk like that.  You’re a Russian citizen!’ Navalny supporters chide the old lady.

I think Aleksey Navalny would look very good as president of Russia.  He’s tall, clever, clear-eyed and clearly a hit with the ladies.  He could be the Russian Kennedy.  Let’s just hope he doesn’t get himself killed.

But can the reform of the Russian state be entrusted to someone who couldn’t reform the Kirovles company?  That question is harder to answer. 

 

THUMBNAIL PHOTO: DEMOTIX/ANTON BELITSKIY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

About the author

Ekaterina Loushnikova is radio and print journalist based in the city of Kirov