KIROV, Russia — The Russian opposition’s most charismatic leader goes on trial here Wednesday, a confrontation with the potential to weaken the democracy movement for years to come — or inject it with new energy and purpose.
The embezzlement case against Alexei Navalny, the 36-year-old lawyer who won a following as an anti-corruption blogger and became a hero of last year’s street protests, is widely considered a test of how harshly President Vladimir Putin intends to crack down on dissent.
Even Navalny, who calls the charges ridiculous, expects a guilty verdict. The case was opened by high-level officials in Moscow 600 miles away, and he said Russia’s judicial system listens to orders from above at the expense of legal arguments.
Navalny predicts a suspended sentence, and, as a convict, he would be prevented from running for office, while being kept on a short leash with the threat of prison. Putting him behind bars — Navalny could get up to 10 years in prison — might provoke the opposition too far. Whatever the outcome, he said, it all comes down to Putin.
“If Putin decides I will be in jail,” Navalny said in an interview with four reporters at his Moscow office Monday, “then I will be in jail no matter what.”
Navalny’s rise to prominence and his date in court follow the arc of the anti-Putin movement here. Protests erupted at the end of 2011 amid dissatisfaction over parliamentary elections that critics said were rigged on behalf of Putin’s United Russia party. Navalny, a natural politician with good looks, an engaging manner and a knack for the snappy slogan — he called United Russia the “party of crooks and thieves,” a name that stuck — was among a small group of leaders who marched at the head of tens of thousands of Russians demanding freedom and fair elections.
The demonstrations peaked in May on the eve of Putin’s inauguration as president, the office he took back from Dmitry Medvedev, who stepped in for four years while Putin served as prime minister, avoiding presidential term limits. Since then, the opposition has been struggling to develop the kind of message and leadership that will galvanize supporters while nervous authorities have tried various means to contain them.
“This is a pivotal moment,” Nikolai Lyaskin, an activist who traveled from Moscow to show support for Navalny, said Tuesday. “This is a test of whether the opposition can unite in court, on the street and in the media.”
People have to show the authorities that they care, handing out fliers, demonstrating on the streets, showing they are not afraid, he said. “People who care can make sure this is not the end,” he said, “and I hope they will make the authorities afraid to give a real sentence.”
Kirov, a provincial region of 1.2 million people northeast of Moscow, offers a dreary landscape for the making or breaking of the opposition. Melting ice covers many sidewalks, and blackened snow is receding to reveal a winter’s worth of dirt and litter. A large statue of Lenin looks out over a city with a poor economy and decaying buildings.
Navalny is charged with stealing $500,000 from a state-owned timber company here by arranging for a middleman to buy wood and sell it to customers at a profit. At the time of the alleged crime, in 2009, he was an adviser to the governor of Kirov. Local investigators have looked into the arrangement twice — Navalny said he recruited a consultant to find customers for the failing Kirovles company and its 4,500 employees — and found no evidence of wrongdoing each time.
Last year, Alexander Bastrykin, head of the country’s top investigative body, ordered the case reopened. Last week, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, said in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia that Navalny’s impudence was to blame.
“The suspect is doing his best to draw attention to himself; one could even say he is teasing the authorities,” Markin said. “So interest in his past grew and the process of bringing him out in the open naturally sped up.”
He also took a swipe at a favorite target: purported U.S. interference. Navalny had a Yale University leadership fellowship in 2010, and Markin said the activist’s handlers there must have thought they were training him for a third-world country, not Russia, which would be wise to him.
Navalny, who lives in a modest Moscow apartment with his wife and two children, works out of an office equipped with a plain desk and his most powerful weapon, a skinny laptop on which he receives corruption complaints from citizens and bloggers.
Putin and his allies, Navalny said, have decided that their only way of hanging on to power is repression. “What other tools do they have?” he said, pacing around his office in jeans and a striped shirt. “There is no economic growth. For 13 years, they have used propaganda successfully, but with the development of the Internet, their reach is becoming weaker. Repressions will become their key resource for the future.”
The opposition fears that if Putin sends Navalny to jail, he will be sending a message that no more opposition activity will be permitted. About 20 activists are in jail, under investigation on suspicion of provoking riots at the May protest, in which demonstrators grappled with police and some rocks were thrown. Two young women, members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, are serving two-year prison terms for an anti-Putin performance in Moscow’s main cathedral. Some activists have fled. A socialist-leaning leader, Sergei Udaltsov, was put under house arrest in February. He is being investigated on suspicion of plotting mass disorder.
On Tuesday, Vitaly Bramm, a 24-year-old Kirov resident, sat in a new Navalny office rented with the help of supporters from Moscow. It did not have WiFi — maybe tomorrow — and rolls of masking tape and pro-Navalny fliers were strewn on the desks.
“This is a new stage for us,” Bramm said. “They want to frighten people, and of course, some are a little scared. But I don’t think they will be able to break my desire to stand up, and that’s what we will do.”