Whatever you think about Aleksei Navalnys politics, its hard not to be impressed by his ingenuity.
This week, he was at it again, releasing an application called a "Truth Browser" on Google Chrome that translates Russian-language web pages into Navalny-speak.
With a simple mouse click, United Russia magically changes -- of course -- into "ïàðòèÿ æóëèêîâ è âîðîâ" or, "The Party of Swindlers and Thieves."
And Navalnys nemesis, Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin? That of course morphs into "Èíîñòðàííûé àãåíò Áàñòðûêèí" (Foreign Agent Bastrykin).
Detractors may dismiss it as a childish prank, except for the fact that Navalnys antics have a tendency to seep into Russias political bloodstream and effect the zeitgeist. This is, after all, the guy who coined the phrase "Swindlers and Thieves" that has become part of the countrys lexicon. He clearly understands the PR value of monotonous repetition and has clearly gotten under the ruling elites collective skin.
Which is why Bastrykin is now trying to silence, sideline, or at least discredit Navalny with the criminal charges which were announced last week.
The writer Anna Fedorova opined in "Izvestia" recently that the way the charges were formulated suggests that Bastrykins goal is to damage Navalnys brand -- just as he has successfully damaged the brand of the ruling elite with his "swindlers and thieves" campaign.
The battle between Navalny and Bastrykin, she wrote, increasingly resembles "a war in looking-class land [where] we see two crooked mirrors directed toward each other. The authorities and the opposition are doing one and the same thing: trying to use the other sides own arguments against them."
And she suggested that the effort to taint Navalny as corrupt could prove effective.
The majority of people do not want to ferret around in the details. For every one who reads the long blog post, with its diagrams and explanations, right through to the end, there will be nine who simply think: Well, yes, so he is just the same as his enemies. They are crooks and thieves -- and he himself is a crook and a thief, it is just that he is lower down the scale and does not belong to United Russia.
When they create a martyr of somebody, the way in which the charge is formulated is of fundamental importance. For a shining model of a revolutionary and campaigner against corruption, it is good to go to jail for the truth or for an exploit, but not very good, to put it mildly, to go to jail for theft (of money, timber, fish, copper, or other national assets).
In an interview on Dozhd TV on the day he was charged with organizing a criminal conspiracy to steal 16 million rubles ($506, 448) worth of timber products from the state-owned KirovLes company, Navalny made a similar point.
"They just want people to hear over and over on television that Navalny stole 16 million, " he said.
Mindful of this, Navalny has made it clear that he doesnt plan to allow Bastrykin to define him as a crook in the public consciousness. In remarks reported by RIA-Novosti, he said he will soon release specific documents proving his innocence and that the case against him has been fabricated.
The case, which dates back to 2009 when Navalny was an unpaid adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, has been indeed gone through so many bizarre twists and turns that it is easy even for somebody unfavorably disposed toward Navalny to have suspicions about the allegations veracity.
Since the investigation was first launched in December 2011, it has been closed for lack of evidence and then reopened and closed so many times that it is easy to lose track.
It was reopened most recently in April at Bastrykins very public insistence, with the charges changed and with individuals who previously testified against Navalny suddenly being named as his coconspirators. (A detailed analysis of the charges themselves is the subject of a separate post. But for now I would recommend this piece in "Novoye vremya" which does a good job of chronicling the case.)
But before the case ever gets to court -- if it ever gets to court -- this odd little "looking-glass war" over public perceptions is bound to continue. As are incidents like Navalnys claim to have found a sophisticated listening device in his office this week.
And the case could have implications far beyond Navalnys fate. As I have blogged in the past, Bastrykin clearly wants to play hardball with the opposition and wants to put Navalny away badly. But as Kremlin-watcher and siloviki expert Mark Galeotti pointed out in the latest Power Vertical podcast, his enthusiasm is not shared by many in the ruling elite -- or even in the law-enforcement community.
How this case winds up, therefore, could end up being one barometer of Russias future political direction.
Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
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