Russian authorities are allegedly preparing to arrest Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who became one of the key leaders of the street protests that have swelled in Russia in the past few months.
According to a report in the Russian media, confirmed by Mr Navalny’s lawyers, Russia’s Investigative Committee will formally issue charges of extortion to Mr Navalny on Monday. The likely charges relate to claims that Mr Navalny acted inappropriately while acting as a consultant for the governor of a Russian region several years ago.
Mr Navalny’s lawyer yesterday confirmed that the opposition leader had been called in to the Investigative Committee on Monday, and said he planned to deny all the charges. Usually, the particular law involved would not involve defendants being remanded in custody, but Mr Navalny’s lawyers say that given the nature of the case, “anything is possible.”
The New Times, a Russian magazine, said it had information that the charges would be made at 4 pm Moscow time on Monday, and even named the investigator that will inform Mr Navalny of the charges.
The arrest would be the latest twist in a very public battle between Mr Navalny and Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, a powerful criminal body. Mr Bastrykin publically berated subordinates during a recent televised meeting for not pursuing a criminal case against Mr Navalny, saying that “there would be no mercy” for those who had not brought charges.
Earlier this week, Mr Navalny released documents which he says prove that Mr Bastrykin is involved in business dealings abroad, and acquired a residence permit in the Czech Republic, an EU and Nato member. Mr Bastrykin is alleged to have held stakes in several companies in the country between 2007 and 2009.
While there is nothing illegal about an official owning businesses abroad, Mr Navalny alleges that Mr Bastrykin did not properly declare the interests, and jokily called him “Agent Bastrykin”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a controversial new law that forces NGOs who accept money from foreign sources to label their websites and materials with “Foreign Agent”.
Mr Bastrykin is regarded as one of the most powerful in Russia’s ruling clique, and has known President Vladimir Putin since university. He was in the news last month for allegedly driving a journalist into a forest and personally threatening to kill him. He later apologised for the incident.
Mr Navalny was jailed for 15 days in December for his part in a street protest against parliamentary elections that gave Mr Putin's United Russia party a majority. Yesterday, he made light of the rumours of the charges on his Twitter feed. “So, if the Investigative Committee is planning to arest me on Monday, I better do something. Anyone know how to get residency in the Czech Republic?”
Mr Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said that the Russian President was not aware of the allegations against Mr Bastrykin. “We don’t read Navalny’s blog, and we don’t see any reason why we should,” said Mr Peskov.