On Thursday, the court of Kirov, Russia, a city northeast of Moscow, will issue a verdict in the so-called "Kirovles case" that began in April, in which Alexei Navalny, political activist and non-parliamentary opposition leader, could be sentenced to six years in prison. The verdict will show exactly how much respect for the law remains in Russian courts, and, more broadly, if democracy still lives in this country.
The trial first started three years ago, in 2010, but investigators closed the case in April 2012. Later, however, the head of the Investigative Committee of Russia, Alexander Bastrykin, expressed his discontent with the fact that the Navalny case had been closed. In 2012, Bastrykin, who belongs to the Siloviki (politicians from security and military services), was accused of kidnapping a journalist, taking him to a forest in the Moscow region, and threatening his life. It was Navalny who proved that Bastrykin, who has access to classified information, holds permanent residency in the Czech Republic, which is a NATO member. Many in Russia see the reopening of the “Kirovles case” as Bastrykin’s revenge on Navalny for his anti-corruption campaigns.
Now, Navalny will go on trial facing charges of embezzling around $510,000 from a timber company named Kirovles (which means "Kirov timber") back in 2009, when he worked in Kirov as a voluntary adviser to the governor of the region. The state prosecutor claimed that the embezzlement took place in collusion with Kirovles's CEO and the Vyatka Timber'a company director.
From the very beginning, the case looked politically motivated to the critics of President Vladimir Putin’s office, because Navalny’s anti-corruption campaigns got too vocal when his blog published documents revealing billions of rubles worth of theft from the state oil and gas companies. The blogger had become a minority shareholder in several state companies, which allowed him to investigate corporate theft and demand transparency. The most notorious of Navalny's findings was that $4 billion had been stolen from the state-owned company Transneft. These investigations made Alexei Navalny the government’s number-one enemy, especially among those whom the blogger claims are among the beneficiaries of these illegal schemes.
Russian lawyers and political activists have called the case against Navalny a fabrication, and come up with weighty arguments to prove that the Kirovles case is a political trial intended to eliminate Navalny as a rival. According to them, there are dozens of irregularities in the indictment, and no independent auditor’s conclusion on the losses of the Kirovles Company. Navalny turned out to be more open to the public than prosecutors were; he published the financial documents of Kirovles and the Vyatka Timber Company online, asking his readers to assess them. This sparked a wave of bewilderment and anger toward prosecutors, because, on the paper, the essence of the trial comes down to normal market relations: a company buying 13 million roubles worth of timber and selling it for 16 million roubles.
While the hearing of the case was underway, the government of Moscow announced that Moscow's mayoral elections would be carried out well ahead of schedule, in September instead of 2015. Critics argue that the authorities want to reelect the current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, a member of the ruling United Russia party and a close friend of the president, before Russia falls into the major stage of an economic recession that would make reelection impossible in 2015. Navalny announced his ambition to run for mayor and had started his electoral campaign. But a guilty verdict (including a suspended sentence) will mean disqualification from the elections. Now that Navalny is gaining mass popularity in Moscow due to his creative campaign, acquittal seems unlikely, because it would mean real competition for the mayoral post between two highly popular politicians.
In his emotional speech at the conclusion of the trial, Navalny said, "This cannot last endlessly, that the 140-million-strong people of one of the biggest and richest countries are subjugated to a handful of bastards who are nothing." July 18 will show if independent courts and democracy still exist in Russia, and if Alexei Navalny, an icon of the revolution, will have a chance to rise to the top of Russian politics in September.