Here is why a new investigation by Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny will likely strengthen the positions of the Kremlin and the prime minister.


Pictured: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Photo:

For more views about Navalny's probe read the media roundup: "Navalny vs. Medvedev: Prime Minister accused of corruption"

This week the Russian anti-corruption whistleblower and a presidential candidate, Alexey Navalny, published a scandalous investigation targeting the country’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

According to the probe, Medvedev and his family have several luxurious residences built in several Russian regions and abroad. Moreover, he is reported to possess expensive yachts, mansions and vineyards inside and outside the country, with his real estate registered under offshore and charity companies.

Video by Foundation for Countering Corruption

The Moscow-based Foundation for Countering Corruption (FBK), headed by Navalny, gives arguments that the Russian prime minister possesses all these amenities by providing the photos from Medvedev’s Instagram and the drone footages of his mansions. The documents that Navalny’s colleagues obtained indicate Medvedev's entire "empire" is allegedly funded through the networks of the charity foundations, which receive billions of rubles from businessmen and bank loans.

Thus, the head of the Russian government was accused of large-scale corruption. The cost of all mentioned assets is about 70 billion rubles (around $1 billion), according to the estimates of the Navalny team. Summing up, the whistleblower claims that “the entire system of power is entirely rotten” and called Russian voters to support him during the 2018 presidential elections.

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The presidential candidate seems to have made a very strong political move and his opponents from the Kremlin have to work hard to respond adequately to the serious accusations. However, as indicated by their responses to Navalny’s previous investigations, the Russian authorities don’t need something extraordinary to refute the accusations from the anti-corruption campaigner. Nor does Medvedev have to deal with the charges against him.    

The first reaction from the Russian government and the Kremlin clearly indicates that the country’s leadership uses the same well-elaborated approach — those at the helm just point fingers to the fact that Navalny is himself facing criminal charges for alleged embezzlement. They just describe his probe as “anti-government propaganda” and suggest ignoring it. And for ordinary Russians, this rhetoric looks like a persuasive argument, so that they don’t take Navalny’s investigation seriously — such a scenario is almost impossible in most European countries and the United States. 

In part, the problem stems from the way Russians understand relations between the authorities and business. They look at it from a totally different angle, which is not common for the West. Russia’s perception of what an official can or cannot do is based on its painful post-Soviet experience and a sophisticated system of traditional views on the nature of power and private property (that goes back almost to the medieval times).

Throughout Russian history, private property has always been under meticulous government control, while the officials affiliated with the authorities had tacit and wide opportunities for self-enrichment. During the Soviet times private property was forbidden, however this step failed to root out rampant corruption. In the post-Soviet times, Russian society went through the privatization of the government assets and this reform was supposed to have built the foundation for “civilized” relations between the authorities and business, based on the rule of law.  

However, in reality, the 1990s privatization turned out to have been only the first step in this direction, which failed eventually. The problem is that many government officials who carried out the transfer of the Soviet multi-billion state wealth into the hands of resourceful businessmen, believed that they also had a right to the wealth.

One can say that the entire epoch of Russian President Vladimir Putin is the period when the Kremlin dealt with a misbalance in distributing “government assets” between businessmen and officials.

And, according to this logic, Navalny is fairly distressed with the rampant corruption in Putin’s Russia. From the moral point of view, it is important and even necessary to be a muckraker in the current situation. Yet it is quite naive to belive that the people’s anger will foster a sound and robust institute of private property — it looks especially naive coming from a presidential candidate.

Many commentators argue that Navalny’s anti-corruption exposés isolated him from the Russian political mainstream as well as other centers of power. After all, he accused liberals (Medvedev), centrists and conservatives (Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika).

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At the same time, Navalny and his supporters are sensitive to criticism from other Russian opposition groups — from those who rebuke Navalny for his tough moralism. They believe that such an approach is counterproductive as a tool of political rivalry in modern Russia, boggled down in cynicism. The inevitable schism within the Russian opposition will only hamper his electoral chances in 2018.

As a result, Navalny’s new investigation is highly likely to strengthen Putin’s positions as well as the positions of Medvedev himself: It is well-known that the Russian president supports the members of his team more rigorously (and with greater tenacity) if they are faced with external pressure or under attack.

Ironically, Navalny won’t be able to persuade ordinary Russian people with his moralism. They just might come up with the conclusion that the authorities, at least, can control oligarchs and force them to contribute to their prosperity and growth. But Navalny’s attempts to hold the authorities accountable will play only against him. So will the fact that the Russian opposition cannot unite and create a politically viable and competitive coalition.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.