Center for Strategic Communication

Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wikimedia

Alexei Navalny, the Russian blogger who emerged as a prominent leader of an anti-Putin protest movement fueled by social media, is now facing up to 10 years in prison.

On Tuesday, prosecutors from Russia’s State Investigative Agency — Russia’s equivalent to the FBI — charged Navalny with stealing half a million dollars from the state-run KirovLes timber company when he was an adviser to a regional governor in rural Kirov province. The alleged plot to defraud KirovLes dates to 2009, but opposition activists believe today’s charge is politically motivated, and an attempt to get Navalny off the internet and off the streets.

The 36-year-old Navalny, through his blog and through the whistleblower website RosPil, has become one of Russia’s more popular opposition personalities. He’s also become a central figure of Russia’s street protests, which began last year but accelerated after the second inauguration of President Vladimir Putin in May. Protests have since topped 100,000 participants — the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The political impartiality of the Investigative Committee should be seriously questioned after the Navalny’s charging,” muckraking, Moscow-based online journalist Andrei Soldatov tells Danger Room. “Navalny seems to be another one in the long line of protesters prosecuted by the Investigative Committee this summer with the clear aim to suppress the political activism by the autumn when the new wave of protests is anticipated.”

Navalny wrote on his blog that the charges a “boring joke.”

“They say that you are acquitted, and two weeks later, face charges completely contrary to the previous two-year investigation,” Navalny blogged. “Beautiful illustration of the fact that you can just take a person off the street and accuse him of anything.”

As RIA Novotsi notes, the case against the blogger was dropped in April, only to be reopened in July on orders from Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin. Perhaps coincidentally, Navalny accused Bastrykin in June of being a corrupt “foreign agent” who threatened to execute an unfriendly journalist.

The charge is the latest in a series of measures designed to weaken a protest movement that’s driven in part by social media. A new internet law which requires service providers to install hardware that can allow the government to block websites featuring references to drugs, “extremist ideas” and pornography; human rights activists have criticized the law as enabling a system in which opposition websites can be censored. Kremlin ally and cybersecurity mogul Eugene Kaspersky have all-but-accused the United States of using social media to spread disinformation, “manipulate crowds and change public opinion.” It’s an allegation echoed by Russian security chief Nikolai Patrushev, who recently claimed that “the Russian blogosphere is… subject to outside influence directed at creating and maintaining constant tensions within society.”

While Navalny is the latest opposition figure to run afoul of the Kremlin, he’s not the first, by any means. The first time Putin took the reigns of state in 2000, he jailed or forced into exile oligarchs that had grown too powerful. Media oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky was exiled in 2001 over his criticisms of the wars in Chechnya. Several more business chiefs followed him. In 2003, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed over accusations of money laundering and theft, while Khodorkovsky’s supporters claim he was shunted aside for funding opposition politicians.

Russia’s parliament has also passed a law essentially outlawing unauthorized protests, with the penalty of steep fines. The state has also brought up charges on the feminist punk band Pussy Riot for staging a demonstration against Putin and the Orthodox Church.