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Russia's legal crusader

Alexey NavalnyWhoever wants to stop Alexei Navalny, the whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who has launched a campaign to expose and punish corporate embezzlement, isn't having much luck.

Federal investigators this week re-launched a probe against Navalny over allegations that Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh found ridiculous: advising the Kirovles timber company on what turned out to be a money-losing contract. (The alleged money lost was just over $43,000).
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This is in addition to libel complaints from a United Russia member over Navalny's comments that the pro-Kremlin party was corrupt, and another grudge from a Penza man over Navalny's use of the double-headed eagle on his newly launched RosPil web site.

Given the record of arrests and violence that whistleblowers often face, you would think that a minority shareholder in Russia's oil pipeline monopoly would get more serious flack for leaking Audit Chamber documents and alleging Transneft stole $4 billion from the government.

In Navalny's case, however, the pressure appears half-baked, nothing more than a black PR campaign that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, his colleagues say.

Not only that, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has openly called for an investigation based on Navalny's allegations against Transneft last December. "We need to investigate if a minority shareholder is unhappy about something," Putin said at the time.

Not a muckraker

Why is he getting away with it?

For one thing, Navalny, 34, is no Julian Assange. And he is adamant that the anti-corruption RosPil website he launched last month is not trying to be a Russian WikiLeaks.

"There are lots of publications out there on corruption, embezzlement, about police buying golden beds and silver Mercedes," Navalny told The Moscow News in an interview this week.

But RosPil isn't in the muckraking business. Its name is derived from the Russian slang word pilit, "to saw" - a euphemism for illicitly "sawing" or siphoning funds from a budget.

Navalny, a lawyer by training who owns shares in some 20 Russian companies, including Gazprom, VTB, Rosneft and Surgutneftegaz, makes sure he dots the i's and crosses the t's.

"Our job is to appeal," he said. "Where the purchases have been made, we complain to the Prosecutor General's Office. If [a potentially illegal] purchase hasn't been made yet, we try to stop it."

Navalny's chief tool is an online federal register of all government contracts and tenders - including how much each contract is worth. The rest is meticulous research to track how the money was spent.

"Wikileaks finds secret information and publishes it. The principle behind RosPil is that people find open information available to everyone, analyse it, and file lawsuits based on evident violations."

It's a completely different approach from that taken by Ruswikileaks.net, which achieved prominence after publishing what purported to be photographs of a lavish palace in southern Russia that some believe is being built for Putin.

Political pressure

For Navalny, there is no question, however, that the recent investigation is part of a counter-offensive against him.

The investigation, he said, was started soon after he posted documents about Transneft on LiveJournal last November.

"It was clearly fabricated," he said. The owner of Kirovles said he never suffered any losses thanks to Navalny's advice, and local investigators soon closed the case for lack of anything to investigate.

Investigators' move to reopen the case - which coincided with the start of Navalny's own lawsuit against Transneft as a minority shareholder - is clearly political pressure, he said.

"[Corrupt officials] have every means to put pressure on anyone," Navalny said. "I don't control this process - I know it can happen to me, but I am not afraid of it. I hardly think about it."

Instead, he has taken efforts to ensure that his own projects and actions are transparent.

Using the law

Navalny said that in less than a week he has raised over $100,000 from supporters for a legal fighting fund, and has brought in a supervisory group of journalists and anti-corruption activists to oversee how the funds are spent.

One of them is Anton Nosik, a leading blogger and founder of some of Russia's best known online news sites.

"There are laws in this country," Nosik told The Moscow News. "The fact that they are not being obeyed is partially due to our passiveness as observers. The mechanisms actually work."

You just have to use them, Nosik argues.

Anyone can stand up for his rights, but it is often a draining, costly process. RosPil is an attempt to pool resources, a venue for average people who want to do something about fighting corruption, Nosik said.

The Navalny file

Born: Moscow region, June 4, 1976

1998 - Graduated from law school

2000 - Joined the Yabloko liberal opposition party

2001 - Graduated from the Government Financial Academy

2004 - Organised a Moscow residents' group that successfully halted controversial construction projects

2005 - Organised a series of alternative political debates in Moscow cafes, which were later briefly on TV in 2007-08

2007 - Expelled from Yabloko

2010 - Publishes dossier alleging $4 billion fraud at Transneft


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