One man’s cyber-crusade against Russian corruption
Late on a snowy evening, Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and blogger known for his crusade against the corruption that pervades Russian business and government, sat in a radio studio in Moscow. Tall and blond, Navalny, who is thirty-four years old, cuts a striking figure, and in the past three years he has established himself as a kind of Russian Julian Assange or Lincoln Steffens. On his blog, he has uncovered criminal self-dealing in major Russian oil companies, banks, and government ministries, an activity he calls “poking them with a sharp stick.” Three months ago, he launched another site, RosPil, dedicated to exposing state corruption, where he invites readers to scrutinize public documents for evidence of malfeasance and post their findings. Since the site went up, government contracts worth nearly seven million dollars have been annulled after being found suspect by Navalny and his army. Most remarkably, Navalny has undertaken all this in a country where a number of reporters and lawyers investigating such matters have been beaten or murdered.
By now, Russia’s reputation for corruption is a cliché, but it is impossible to overstate how it defines public life at every level, all the way to the Kremlin. Russia is one of the few countries in the world to slip steadily in Transparency International’s annual rankings. Out of a hundred and seventy-eight countries surveyed in 2010, Russia ranks a hundred and fifty-fourth, a spot it shares with Cambodia, Guinea-Bissau, and the Central African Republic. Corruption has reached such extremes that businesses involved in preparing the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the Winter Olympics of 2014 report having to pay kickbacks of more than fifty per cent. The Russian edition of Esquire recently calculated that one road in Sochi cost so much that it could just as well have been paved with, say, nine inches of foie gras or three and
a half inches of Louis Vuitton handbags. In October, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that a trillion rubles – thirty-three billion dollars – disappears annually on government contracts. This is three per cent of the country’s G. D. P.
In the studio, Navalny sat next to Evgeny Fedorov, a doughy, bespectacled member of the Duma and a fairly high-ranking member of United Russia, the political party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which today dominates Russia. Fedorov had been invited on the air to debate an assertion that Navalny had made in the same studio two weeks earlier. When asked by a radio host what he thought of United Russia, Navalny had said, “I think very poorly of United Russia. United Russia is the party of corruption, the party of crooks and thieves. And it is the duty of every patriot and citizen of our country to make sure that this party is destroyed.” United Russia announced its intention to file suit against Navalny for slander. Unfazed, Navalny responded with a poll on his blog asking readers whether they agreed with his assertion that United Russia was in fact a party of crooks and thieves. (Of forty thousand respondents, 96.6 per cent agreed with Navalny.) Then he announced a contest to design a poster using the “crooks and thieves” line as a slogan.
Sitting beside Navalny in the studio, Fedorov fumbled nervously with a stack of colored folders and a thicket of scribbled notes. Without looking at him, Navalny drew a sheet of paper from a slim file in front of him and began to read through a list of members of United Russia’s leadership council.