MOSCOW — Anyone following the uproar in Washington over allegations of inappropriate ties to Russia within the Trump administration might be interested in Moscow’s reaction to sweeping corruption charges the country’s most recognizable Kremlin opponent has leveled against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Crickets, pretty much.
Alexei Navalny, who has said he will run for president in 2018, released last week a report and a 50-minute video detailing allegations that Medvedev has funneled more than $1 billion in bribes through companies and charities run by his associates to acquire vineyards, luxury yachts and lavish mansions. The Russian government quickly dismissed the accusations as an attention-grabbing stunt by a self-proclaimed presidential candidate with no chance of winning.
That came out on Thursday, the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into possible Kremlin interference in the U.S. presidential election after The Washington Post’s report that he had met with Russia’s ambassador to the United States despite telling senators at his confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russian officials during the campaign.
Official Moscow quickly characterized the Sessions affair as a witch hunt motivated by anti-Russian hysteria, and the Internet was peppered with tweets poking fun at the furor and pictures of Americans real and imaginary who have met Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Online Russia has been far less dismissive of Navalny’s video, which has more than 5 million views on YouTube, and more than 400 comments, many of which appear to have been written by Russians who support its conclusions. The allegations, which Navalny said were put together relying on publicly available documents, were also reported by online news portals and a few influential newspapers.
But they were ignored or dismissed by government-controlled television and most major print publications, following the lead of Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, who said there was no point in commenting on “propaganda insinuations,” and President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who backed Timakova’s remarks, referring to Navalny as a “notorious convicted citizen.”
And that highlights a major difference between the political state of affairs for dissidents in Russia and the United States at the moment.
Navalny, who emerged as an anti-corruption whistleblower and took a leading role in the street protests that accompanied Putin’s 2012 return to the presidency, has been the target of fraud and embezzlement probes he calls politically motivated. In 2013, he was convicted of siphoning money off a lumber sale, a verdict that the European Court of Human Rights declared “prejudicial,” saying that Navalny and his co-defendant were denied the right to a fair trial.
In November, Russia’s Supreme Court declared a retrial, and Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and handed a five-year suspended sentence in February, which by Russian law would prevent him from running for president.
Navalny’s conviction is one of a long line of misfortunes that befall vocal opponents of Putin. Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic former deputy prime minister and opposition leader, was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin walls in 2015. Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition activist, was in a medical coma in the hospital last month after a suspected poisoning, the second since 2015. Others have been discredited by hidden camera videos aired on state television.
The Kremlin denies involvement in any of this, and it would seem unnecessary for Putin to worry about his opponents when his popularity rating, according to one polling center, hasn’t dipped below 80 percent in three years.
That same pollster, the Levada Center, in February reported that 47 percent of 1,600 Russians surveyed had heard of Navalny, but only 10 percent said they might vote for the 40-year-old whistleblower.
Asked Friday whether the Russian parliament would look into the report, pro-Kremlin legislator Vyacheslav Nikonov dismissed it as a desperate attempt to get attention by an unpopular candidate. He also poured scorn on the way Navalny built his case against Medvedev, which relies on connections to the premier’s former classmates, Instagram photos that appear to place Medvedev on one of the yachts or at one of the estates, and garishly colored sneakers and shirts that were sent to one of the companies and were identical to ones worn by Medvedev in pictures and videos shown in the video.
Piecing together the evidence, Navalny concluded that without a doubt, Medvedev, who has frequently spoken of the need to fight official corruption, is “one of the richest people in the country and one of the most corrupt bureaucrats.”
One former classmate linked to companies and charities mentioned in the scheme denied any connection, and Nikonov countered that Navalny’s accusations boiled down to the fact that “Medvedev wears pink sneakers.”
In an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Ilya Shumanov, a deputy head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, agreed that Navalny has failed to make an irrefutable case that Medvedev benefited financially from his acquaintances.
Navalny decried what he called public indifference to corruption in Russia.
“I try to do things in a way they should be done in a normal world,” Navalny told the station. “In Russia we see an absurd situation in which we publish on the Internet that someone received 70 billion [rubles] in bribes, and everybody’s reaction is like, ‘yeah, nothing interesting here.’ ”