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The End of Russia's Thaw Hurts Medvedev, Navalny, & Friends

Earlier this week on January 29, federal investigators searched [ru] Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh's offices, in connection with a probe into the 2010 privatization of a local distillery. Bloggers reacted with alarm, as photographs of masked police entering Belykh's office circulated on Twitter. Commenting on the image, opposition activist Ilya Yashin declared [ru] that the time of “conversations [between men] in office ties has ended.” A former Kirov deputy governor, Maria Gaidar, tweeted [ru] that the search marks the “obvious end of the Medvedev thaw.” Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya also highlighted [ru] Belykh's relationship to Dmitri Medvedev, calling him the only liberal gubernatorial appointment during Medvedev's presidency. She argues that Belykh's political immunity has been evaporating since Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin, and that this investigation is a consequence of that dwindling clout.

Stanovaya also addresses Belykh's ties to Alexey Navalny, Russia's best known anti-corruption blogger. (In 2009, Navalny was an advisor to Belykh.) In recent months, federal authorities have initiated several criminal investigations targeting Navalny, in an apparent attempt to put pressure on Russia's most polarizing oppositionist. These cases include defrauding a shipping company, stealing money from a now defunct political party, and embezzling timber from a logging company in Kirov. (He's been formally charged [ru] in the third case.)

Dmitry Medvedev with Governor of Kirov Region Nikita Belykh, 14 May 2009, photo by Presidential Press and Information Office, CC 3.0.

Dmitry Medvedev with Governor of Kirov Region Nikita Belykh, 14 May 2009, photo by Presidential Press and Information Office, CC 3.0.

The supposedly corrupt privatization of the Kirov distillery amounts to a fourth case involving Navalny. Last summer, the notorious Hacker Hell leaked [ru] private email records between Navalny and Belykh, where they discussed stealing [ru] from a distillery, so that Belykh could pay back his debts to Navalny. The emails logs, which Navalny and Belykh acknowledged to be partially genuine, represent how the RuNet has often been an incubator for the war against Navalny. Whether state authorities are planting allegations themselves or simply farming a readymade supply by grassroots opponents of Navalny is anybody's guess.

In his characteristic manner, Navalny responded to the searches of Belykh's offices with a joke on Twitter. Referring to the search of the Governor's vacation home, he tweeted [ru]:

Кстати, на “Чёрном озере”, где тоже идёт обыск, остались мои валенки. Прошу следствие их изъять и вернуть хозяину

By the way, I left my boots at Chernoe Ozero, where there's another search underway. I ask the investigators to impound them and return them to their owner.

Nikita Belykh, meanwhile, took to LiveJournal, where he downplayed the event, writing [ru] that he has nothing to hide and is happy to assist the investigators. He also made clear that he is not a suspect, and that investigators were merely seeking “documents of interest.” The following day, he was called in for questioning as a witness in the case. That process lasted almost three hours.

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