Russian prosecutors have unveiled a whole new set of serious criminal allegations against protest-leader-turned-Moscow-mayoral-candidate Alexei Navalny – who is already facing massive legal woes and a likely five-year prison sentence – and it could potentially force him to withdraw from the city polls that are now less than a month off.
On Monday the General Prosecutor's office posted a statement accusing Mr. Navalny of illegally financing his campaign with contributions from abroad. Under Russian law, as in many countries, it is strictly illegal for candidates to political office to accept any donations from foreigners or non-Russian entities.
"The information about foreign funding for Navalny’s electoral campaign has been confirmed during checks," the statement said. "More than 300 foreign individuals and organizations, and anonymous donors from 46 countries (including the United States, Finland, Britain, Sweden, and Canada) from 347 IP addresses have sent money to the electronic fund of Navalny and members of his campaign headquarters."
Navalny denied the allegations on his LiveJournal blog saying that his mayoral campaign is financed through a bank account with the state-owned Sberbank, which is closely monitored by the electoral authorities.
"All payments come into a Sberbank bank account. All payments are checked by the Moscow City Electoral Commission," he said. "If they tell us that the payment is illegal, that the name, date of birth or citizenship is not stated – we return the money. That's it."
The prosecutor's statement said the allegedly illegal funds are being channeled through a popular online service called Yandex.Money. But the giant Russian Internet company Yandex denied Monday they had even been contacted about the case by prosecutors.
"We do not understand within what parameters the Prosecutor General’s Office has reached its conclusions about foreigners," Yandex.Money spokeperson Asya Melkumova, told the Ekho Moskvi radio station. "IP addresses only tell you about a person’s physical location, not about his citizenship."
According to Navalny, at least 1.2-million Russian citizens are registered as living abroad, but the actual number could be as high as five times that.
While even the whiff of such charges might end a politician's career almost anywhere else, in Russia the criminal prosecution of Kremlin opponents is widely-viewed, with good reason, as politically-motivated. In Navalny's case there is the added bizarre twist that even as authorities keep heaping allegations upon him, strong evidence suggests that key Kremlin leaders, probably including President Vladimir Putin, do not want to see him jailed – at least not yet.
Last month Navalny was convicted of embezzlement by a regional court in Kirov, and was in the process of being bundled off to begin serving his prison term when the chief prosecutor in Moscow interceded and demanded that he be freed pending the outcome of his appeal. Though that may sound like a normal procedure, experts say it seldom actually happens in Russian criminal cases.
The explanation, many analysts agree, was that important people in the Kremlin want Navalny to complete his earlier-declared campaign for mayor of Moscow, which he would have to end if he went to jail. In Moscow, the most important political stage in Russia, the pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin is the overwhelming favorite to win. Mr. Sobyanin is backed by state resources, the mainstream media, the huge electoral machine of the ruling United Russia party – even though Sobyanin has chosen to run as an "independent" – and a solid body of conservative citizens who usually vote the status quo ticket.
Sobyanin was appointed two years ago to run Moscow after then-President Dmitry Medvedev fired long-time Moscow kingpin Yury Luzhkov. Under reforms brought in by Medvedev, the Moscow mayor's post is up for election again, and Sobyanin chose to call a snap vote this spring.
But Moscow is also the main center of Russia's disgruntled middle class, and it gave rise to a massive street protest movement after widespread electoral fraud by United Russia was alleged in the December 2011 Duma polls.
Even though there is already a Communist and the leader of the liberal Yabloko party in the running, analysts say a confident Sobyanin wanted the street protest leader Navalny in the race. Sobyanin's team even went so far as to order United Russia deputies of the Moscow city council to sign Navalny's candidacy papers so that he could clear the difficult hurdles originally put in place to keep people like him off the ballot.
"These events point to a growing split in the elites. Sobyanin needed Navalny to make the Moscow elections seem fair, honest, and transparent. That is why Navalny was freed in the Kirov case. But there are other forces at work here, acting through the prosecutor's office and they seem to want to imprison him," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow media consultancy.
"It would be a public scandal to throw him out of the election campaign. But he is gaining more and more support, so some people are wondering 'what will happen if he gets 1 million votes?'" he says. "If he gets 20 percent in Moscow it will rock the system, and then the whole official line that Navalny is 'marginal' will be in doubt. This is alarming."
Opinion polls continue to show Sobyanin with an overpowering lead but Navalny slowly creeping up and quite possibly on track to win that symbolic 20 percent figure.
Nikolai Petrov, a professor of politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, thinks the fresh allegations against Navalny have been engineered by hard conservative political forces who would like to see Navalny jailed, but also are wary of Sobyanin, who's an up-and-coming Kremlin favorite who could be prime minister material or even, one day, a viable potential successor to Mr. Putin.
"If Sobyanin can win in a competitive election, it will strengthen his hand and make him a more autonomous figure," says Mr. Petrov. "But if Navalny were forced out of the race, it would lessen Sobyanin's victory and diminish his stature."
"There is no doubt that Putin is backing Sobyanin, and certainly made it possible for Navalny to be freed from prison so he could run for mayor in Moscow," he adds. "So, these new charges look like somebody is trying to change Putin's mind about that. Foreign funding is a very serious matter for Putin," and a new law currently is being enforced to close down dozens of non-governmental groups that get money from abroad.
"So, if you wanted to convince Putin to end Navalny's candidacy for mayor and put him into prison, that would be the issue to use," says Petrov.