Russian opposition leader Navalny ties Moscow prosecutor to luxury properties abroad: NPR
Dmitri Lovetsky / AP
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny sits on a beige sofa in his Moscow apartment, clasps his hands and closes his eyes.
“I want to go into the DA’s apartment,” he repeats over and over, as blue smoke rises from the ground. There’s a loud ‘zing’ – and suddenly Navalny finds himself over 1,000 kilometers away, sitting on the couch of a vacation rental home overlooking the scenic Montenegro coast.
The gag occurs within the first few minutes of a video Navalny posted this week, which garnered nearly 2.5 million views in its first three days on YouTube. The half-hour investigation alleges that exclusive properties in Montenegro and Spain can be awarded to the new Moscow City Prosecutor.
Navalny is a master of social media. The 43-year-old lawyer, the most vocal Russian opponent of President Vladimir Putin, has made a name for himself as a critic of the Kremlin through his blog. He used his YouTube channel to publicize his chimerical campaign to topple Putin last year, before being barred from running. Now he regularly publishes surveys of the unexplained and untold wealth of government officials.
His most popular video, on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has racked up more than 32 million views since its publication in 2017 – and is still on YouTube in defiance of a Russian court order to remove it. And one Naval investigation connecting hotels in Austria to a powerful Moscow politician preceded the defeat of this pro-Kremlin adviser in the September elections.
Navalny’s latest target is Denis Popov, whom Putin appointed Moscow’s chief prosecutor in September. Earlier in his career, Popov sued three members of the performance art group Pussy Riot for their 2012 “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Main Cathedral. Popov currently directs a crackdown following anti-government protests this summer that have been the most important in years.
Human rights groups say the rallies were largely peaceful, but several demonstrators are already serving prison sentences for riots. A protester, Konstantin Kotov, received a four-year sentence simply for having attended several demonstrations.
Navalny has recently come under increasing pressure from the government for supporting the summer protests. He and some of his allies are being fined for the damage they allegedly suffered during the protests. In October, law enforcement raided the homes and offices of Navalny’s employees. Anti-corruption foundation in the towns across Russia. Authorities accuse the mob-funded foundation of money laundering and have called it a “foreign agent.”
In this week’s investigation, titled “The Secret Life of a Foreign Agent,” Navalny attempts to show that Moscow’s chief prosecutor is the one with the real foreign interests.
In the video, Navalny says the original information on vacation apartments in Montenegro came from inside the Moscow prosecutor’s office. Cross-checking local real estate records with social media posts from Popov’s family members, Navalny then locates a luxurious townhouse in southern Spain registered in Popov’s ex-wife’s name.
Navalny uses a drone to film properties he says are linked to the prosecutor, including an estate in Moscow’s most elite suburb and a fishing station on the Volga. Popov’s undeclared foreign real estate is worth more than $ 3.5 million, Navalny says, despite his claim that the prosecutor’s official salary is less than $ 12,000 a year.
The Kremlin, which approved Popov’s appointment, immediately rejected Navalny’s investigation.
“Before such meetings, very in-depth checks are carried out on all the information”, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters after the video was released on YouTube. “The appointment is an indication that no violation of relevant legislation has been found.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political scientist, believes the Kremlin has no choice but to stick with its man.
“Difficult times are looming for Navalny, and the opposition in general, as we see the government’s tactics become more rigid and uncompromising,” she said.
Despite his success on social media, Navalny is not a household name in Russia, largely because state-controlled television is the main source of information.
A survey conducted last month by Independent Moscow Levada Center found that only 9% of respondents have a positive opinion of Navalny, while 25% are negative and 31% neutral or indifferent. Another 31% don’t even know what they’re doing.
The reason Putin isn’t locking up Navalny for good is that it would make him a hero and increase his popularity among ordinary Russians, according to Stanovaya. So far, Navalny is not dangerous for the Kremlin, she said.
“The best scenario for the Kremlin would be for Navalny to go into exile,” Stanovaya explains. “They are betting that by making his life so difficult, he will be forced to leave for the sake of preserving his family and his safety.”
But Navalny has vowed to stay in Russia and continue fighting the regime. His younger brother, Oleg, served more than three years in prison for a criminal conviction which Navalny said was intended to force him out of politics.
Navalny has already followed up on his video on the Moscow prosecutor. In a three page letter, he asks Putin to fire Popov and bring him to justice.