Battle for Russia’s political future plays out in provincial courtroom


Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia walk along a street after leaving a court in the provincial northern city of Kirov on April 24, 2013. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
May 11, 2013

They sit on a rough bench in the late-afternoon sun, three women looking as ancient as the city itself, residents of a place similar to so many others in Russia, where the forces that rule their lives are distant and poorly understood.

Like the three women, most Russians are paying little attention to the trial here of Alexei Navalny, a charismatic opposition leader in Moscow who is charged with embezzling from the local timber company when he served as a volunteer adviser to the governor in 2009.

The politically aware consider the case a drama of great consequence, scripted by President Vladi­mir Putin in an effort to destroy a potent challenger. For them, the trial holds significant implications for the nation’s political future and aspirations for democracy.

But for the three women and so many others, the machinations of the powerful have little effect on their daily struggles. Such people exist at some remove from their government, buffeted by its actions but helpless to influence them.

Navalny, a 36-year-old lawyer, has no illusions about the system either, but refuses to bow to it. Even though he has declared his innocence, he expects a compliant judge to find him guilty. As a convict, he would be prohibited by law from running for office, removing a potential threat to Putin’s authority and scaring off other upstarts.

The three women live on trash-strewn Mopra Street in Kirov, a city of failing industry 600 miles northeast of Moscow. They are only a few blocks from the district courthouse where the trial resumes Wednesday, but the Navalny name, rarely mentioned on the main television channels, is unfamiliar.

“Ask the young people,” they say. “We’re old.” They are 67, 79 and 73, wearing frayed knit hats in various pastels. They are delighted to talk and touchingly gratified that someone cares to listen, but they yelp with laughter when asked for their names.

“They’ll eat us alive and put us in jail,” said the 79-year-old.

A 62-year-old neighbor — she’s just a girl, the others say — is sure she has seen the name Navalny online. She lives with her children, who have the Internet. “Now is Putin for him,” she asks, “or against him?”

Kirov has a core of activists, each with his own turning point. For Vitaly Bramm, 24, it was rigged elections in December 2011, which put him in contact with the opposition in Moscow. Now he’s organizing a local support group for Navalny.

“People who get their information from TV know nothing about Navalny,” he said. “So if they hear he stole, they believe it.”

A city of despair

Things are bad in Kirov, and people don’t know how to make them better. Experience has taught that elections change nothing. They live in buildings that turn decrepit soon after they’re built. The sidewalks are crumbling, the water undrinkable. And just look at the roads. Everyone mentions the roads.

“They aren’t roads,” said Denis Shadrin, 30, an activist, pointing out muddy expanses that look more like village paths than streets. “They’re directions.”

Residents say the roads are a major artery for corruption.

It’s lucrative, said another activist, Sergei Kosolapov, 37, because companies charge for expensive work and materials but provide only cheap repairs.

“They only patch,” he said. “They don’t repave. That’s how they get houses in London and Cyprus.”

Kosolapov started a citizen’s auto patrol not long ago after three people were killed by a drunk driver who had friends in high places protecting him. Now members of the Night Patrol fan out on major roads, reporting dangerous drivers to police and making sure they follow through.

Life is hard here, he said. The average salary is about $400 a month. Young people are moving away in droves. Instead of paying taxes, businessmen hand officials money in envelopes.

“The worst problem is that people don’t care,” he said. “Ordinary people care about getting their pay and pension on time. That’s why they vote for Putin.”

Often, the 79-year-old woman said, the city water shuts off without warning. Residents can’t drink it anyway, and everyone spends considerable time and effort buying water and carrying it home. Look at the steps, said the 67-year-old. They’re crumbling. The trash piles up, and the building management won’t even give them shovels to clean it up, she said.

“We don’t know who’s in charge,” said the 79-year-old. “They could at least give us a telephone number. But that’s all decided by people higher up than us.”

Once, she managed to get a plumber when a pipe burst. “He asked me what I expected with such an old building,” she said — it was built in 1989. “And he hinted I shouldn’t get so upset because I’ll probably be dead soon anyway.”

‘Of course he’s guilty’

Kirov, a city of just under 500,000 in a region with a population of 1.2 million, began life as a 12th century fort and was eventually named for a Soviet martyr, Sergei Kirov, who was assassinated in 1934. It remains known for brightly painted clay figurines, a folk art estimated to be 400 years old. Navalny came here in 2009 as an adviser to a new governor who had declared he had the ideas and energy to lift the district out of poverty.

The state-owned timber company, called Kirovles, was hemorrhaging money, and Navalny said he put its managers in touch with a middleman who earned a commission by getting new sales contracts. The commission is apparently the source of the embezzlement charge. Navalny said he did not receive any of the money.

The case was dismissed twice by local authorities, but the head of the federal investigative committee in Moscow and a close Putin ally insisted on reopening it.

“Of course he’s guilty,” said a 50-year-old man who would identify himself only as Yuri because he was fearful of talking to foreigners. “They all are. Just look at the roads.”

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