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Alexei Navalny, the virtual thorn in Putin’s side

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2011-12-13

Best known for describing Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves,” Alexei Navalny has risen from unknown blogger to one of the biggest thorns in the prime minister’s side.

In seemingly no time at all, Alexei Navalny has become a major Moscow icon in the Russian fight against corruption and election fraud, representing tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators in their protest against Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, which they say counterfeited the December 4 legislative election.

By sentencing him to 15 days in jail for his part in the December 5 protests, the Russian authorities have only legitimised his reputation as a growing threat to Putin and his counterpart President Dmitry Medvedev.

Before the post-election protests last week, Alexei Navalny was talked about more in the West than in Russia itself. Operating from his LiveJournal page and blog, the 35-year-old commercial rights lawyer spends his time rifling through the paperwork of almighty politicians and Russian business giants like Transneft and Gazprom.

In 2010, his enquiry into dodgy public contracts at the ministry of health forced several members there to stand down.

Party of profanities

While his investigative work brought him to the attention of Western media, Navalny remained largely unknown among most Russians. “We’ve never had web stars here,” explains Tatiana Tropina, Russian IT and internet security specialist. “Until now, the web wasn’t considered as a platform for political protest.”

Unlike the man himself, Navalny’s 2009 description of United Russia – “the party of crooks and thieves” – is widely popular. “People who have never heard of Navalny know and use the phrase,” Tropina tells FRANCE 24. Centre-left opposition party One Russia even used it for their campaign slogan in the legislative elections.

Years after it was first coined, the phrase prompted a response from the party in question last week, when it appeared in the following re-tweet on Dmitry Medvedev’s official Twitter feed: “Today it became clear that a person who writes the words 'party of crooks and thieves' on their blog is a stupid, c*cksucking sheep :)” [That insult too was borrowed from one of Navalny’s rants]. The tweet was soon removed and an apology issued; the incident blamed on a rogue technician.

Near nationalist

After his arrest last week, Russians are finally beginning to put a face and a name to the beloved slogan. Tropina says that Navalny’s emergence is seen as a threat by the powers that be because “unlike other anti-Putin personalities, this blogger doesn’t have a murky past, and has never been involved with power”.

Alexei Navalny is not a shining light to all opposition activists however. Appearing at a nationalist demonstration in early November alongside openly neo-Nazi-linked youth movements, his rightwing ties will no doubt put off Russia’s lefter-leaning rights campaigners.

His new-found popularity has proved to Russians nonetheless that social networks can be used as an instrument of political protest, Tropina says. The arrival of this novel tool has not gone entirely unnoticed by the government either.

Medvedev chose to use his Facebook page to break the silence over the legislative elections and subsequent protests. Unfortunately for him, his status update prompted more feedback than he’d bargained for; most of the 15,000 comments far from positive.

Date created : 2011-12-13

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