Navalny conviction divides Russians

19th July 2013, Comments 0 comments

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny, dramatically released Friday pending an appeal against his five-year jail sentence, may be an inspirational hero for iPad-toting middle class Muscovites, but faces an uphill struggle to win popularity across Russia.

Hours after he was released from court in the northeastern city of Kirov to the joy of supporters who had travelled up from Moscow, many locals in Kirov failed to muster enthusiasm for President Vladimir Putin's most well-known opponent.

"It's bad that he has been released. He should be in prison along with (co-defendant Pyotr) Ofitserov," said pensioner Yulia, strolling across the main square in Kirov, dominated by a Lenin statue.

Navalny was found guilty of defrauding the local government of 16 million rubles ($500,000) in a timber deal.

Yulia was also critical of his bid to become mayor of Moscow, where he plans to stand against ruling party-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin.

"As mayor he will steal even more," she sniped.

The pensioner and other Kirov residents who spoke to AFP, declined to release their last names, saying they were uncomfortable discussing politics.

Many were familiar with the details of the case and knew of his release following a surprise appeal by prosecutors against Navalny being held behind bars before his sentence takes effect, and while he is registered as a Moscow mayoral candidate.

Inna, a middle-aged woman said Navalny "is simply a thief."

"Why did he just get a fine for 500,000 rubles ($15,000) and not all those millions he stole?" she asked.

Ironically, she said that she opposed state corruption, which is one of Navalny's main campaign targets -- with his criminal conviction apparently aimed at undermining this role.

"There are too many people like this who squirrel away our state property. It's not a secret to anyone. What summer houses and cottages they build themselves, no one asks where they get the money from."

Many brought up his role in the timber deal as unpaid advisor to liberal governor Nikita Belykh in 2009.

"I don't like that he sold off the forestry. That's why I'm against him," said pensioner Klavdia, sitting on a bench in a ribboned sunhat.

"When he was with our governor, why did he have to go after the timber? Didn't they give him enough money?"

"He should have got 10 years," she added.

Deprived of positive coverage on pro-Kremlin state television, Navalny himself admits he faces a struggle to win nationwide popularity in a country where television is still the main source of information.

Thousands of supporters rushed onto the streets of Moscow Thursday to protest his conviction but many outside the capital are unaware of his existence.

A protest against his trial outcome in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok -- which had a population of 600,000 -- mustered a grand total of four people, the Interfax news agency reported.

In fashionable sunglasses and a flowing skirt, local Kirov resident Darya said she had only followed the case a little but nevertheless felt Navalny should be in prison.

"I see it from a distance and don't follow it much. My view is that it is right that they are convicting him," she said.

But other young people in Kirov were more sympathetic to Navalny's plight.

"To be honest I'm not sure if it's good or bad, I stay neutral. I think a lot of people feel that way," said 16-year-old schoolgirl Liza.

"I think it's fabricated. I follow the case," said Vadim, a young man.

"The machinations were done not by him, and I think he was simply picked as the scapegoat instead of the governor," he said. "I think it's good they released him."

Others saw Navalny's surprise release as part of a strategy to discredit him.

"I think that the authorities now need Navalny to take part in the elections and to show the whole country: 'Look at Navalny who can't get elected," said Dmitry Leshch, a young journalist for the regional 7X7 website.

© 2013 AFP

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