Apathy in evidence as Russia opposition activist Navalny goes on trial

By bne IntelliNews April 17, 2013

Julia Reed in Moscow -

"A case against Navalny is a case against all of us," insist the friends and supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is due to go on trial for corruption in the regional city of Kirov on April 17. Unfortunately, many other Russians appear not to agree.

Navalny, a lawyer and political activist who has gained prominence in Russia as a champion of anti-corruption, is accused - ironically enough - of stealing RUB16m ($530,000) from a timber plant that he advised as a lawyer. Navalny denies the charges, which he claims are politically motivated, though Konstantin Zaytsev, the head judge of Kirov's Leninsky District Court where the trial will be held told The Daily Telegraph that Navalny was extremely unlikely to escape conviction. "An acquittal is an extraordinary event in the Russian judicial system," Zaytsev was quoted as saying. "Problematic cases, when the investigating organs worry that a guilty verdict won't be reached, do not usually come to court."

In its first week, the support group added over 1,600 members on the Russian internet and is growing rapidly. "We want to show that we are not afraid to reveal our faces," says Alexandra Astakhova, one of the campaign activists who has known Navalny since they worked together at Da! - a youth social movement formed in 2006 that organized public debates on current affairs. "It is a sort of a flash mob. We want people to photograph themselves with the slogan and then repost it across all social networks."

Astakhova says the group is also planning to ask families and mothers, like those of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and murdered anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, as well as Rus Sidyashaya (a support movement of the relatives of jailed people) and of those detained on the 6th of May case, to take part.

As a not-very-scientific experiment, I set out to investigate whether my Russian Facebook friends - a random selection of 22 Muscovites aged 23 to 66 - were following the Navalny case. Their reactions surprised me: they exhibited either ignorance or indifference to the case. And these people are for the most part relatively sophisticated urban middle class Russians - the very people that are supposed to form Navalny's core support.

Do you follow the case against Navalny?


"Sorry, have no idea. What is it?"

"I don't follow the news because it's upsetting and nothing can be done. So, why hurt yourself?"

"I've got too much work".

"I stopped following Navalny and reading his blog because I got disappointed... nothing has changed".

"Don't know much about it but if there is a case, he must have done something to bring it on."

"I don't know the details but I have no doubt it's politically motivated".

"I don't believe he will be jailed for 10 years because it may result in political uncertainty and unrest and such things are too scary for the government".

What is your attitude to Navalny?

"Navalny? Politics? Ask someone else".

"I don't think about him".

"I heard of him but I don't even know what he looks like".

"Indifferent. I don't care about politics".

"I don't fully trust him. I can't believe he is that honest and straightforward. I think if he comes to power he will become like everyone else in politics. I don't believe that in Russia it is possible that the president represents the interests of society at large".

"He is too aggressive for me. I follow other politicians, like Prokhorov, Ryzhkov, Kudrin".

"I respect Navalny for fighting corruption and his courage but I still don't fully understand whose interests he represents"

"I respect Navalny and still support him, but I'm less interested since this is all very sad and upsetting."

"I completely trust him and would vote for him as president".

What is your response to the statement that a case against Navalny is a case against all of us?

"Don't they have better things to do? Why can't they just be happy?"

"This is a very categorical statement. I'd disagree with the way it's phrased".

"I somewhat agree with them. I think all of us are vulnerable".

"I agree. I wish them good luck. I will not join the fight myself because in this country if they want to imprison or kill somebody, they will do it anyway even if a million people will be against it".

"I agree with them. The case against him is obviously fabricated because he criticizes the government. It makes me more frightened and demoralized. It means that if somebody stands up for truth, they will be punished".

Do you think you could support people in this group?

"No, I'm mainly interested in my family and friends".

"I'd try to help if somebody I knew personally would be in trouble".

"What do you mean by support? Buy a ticket to Kirov? Picket or take a photo with a placard? I am married to a foreigner... they can kick me out of the country. I'm not being a coward. I just want to enjoy life and have children and not end up to the middle of nowhere for nothing".

"I'd sign a petition if prompted but I'm not ready to stand in a picket. I don't think protests are effective. My brother was wounded at the 6th May protest last year and ended up detained by the police".

"How can I help Navalny? Stand in a picket? I'm afraid to do it. I'm not much of a revolutionary. I sometimes sign petitions, repost things on the Internet, go out to rallies. But I also have to work and this is my priority. If my family or I get into trouble, there won't be anyone to help us. If I end up in detention for 15 days, who knows what may happen to me there. They will knock me down like a fly".

"I could sign a petition or send them my picture with the slogan if somebody asked me personally".

"If I weren't afraid I'd be supporting Navalny. I'd see it not as a fight for a specific individual but for the whole idea that if he doesn't go to jail, he'd do something useful for our benefit".

What becomes clear from the answers of this small and non-representative pool of people is that the vast majority do not see Navalny as a leader on a national scale.

Part of his lack of appeal is Russian history. Russian leaders have never been elected in the past, but are put forward by the powers that be. Russians are still struggling to believe in people who have put themselves forward as potential leaders.

Another problem is the lack of community. Civil society in Russia remains fragile, even in the capital. Government is corrupt and doesn't serve the people. People don't yet see themselves as part of a larger like-minded community that can solves problems with collective action, so injustice remains part of the fabric of life.

I asked Astakhova to comment the responses that I received: "It's understandable that people don't want to get involved, so as not to needlessly expose themselves to danger. But I believe in the success of our campaign. If ask people to do something small, like dropping flyers in mailboxes, they usually agree. As they do more, they are less afraid and more committed. For me not to support Navalny in his time of need would be to do something dishonest not even to him but to myself".

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