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Russia Charges Leading Dissident With Embezzlement

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny speaks to the media as he arrives for questioning at the headquarters of the Russian Investigation committee in Moscow on Monday. (AP)

Government prosecutors in Russia have brought criminal charges against a leading dissident, Alexei Navalny.

Navalny writes a popular blog that points to alleged corruption in the Russian government, and he helped lead the anti-government protests in Moscow this past winter.

He says the charges — that he stole timber from a state-owned company — are part of a campaign to crack down on opposition by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime.

Before he entered the prosecutors' office for questioning on Monday, Navalny told reporters that he expected to be charged.

For the past four years, he said, the Putin regime has been threatening to take action against him.

Nobody knows [what will happen] if he is jailed. Would this act as an intimidating signal to the people or would it radicalize the protest?
Russia analyst Masha Lipman

"I'm not happy about it, but it's part of the job," he said.

A Challenge To The Government

Navalny's self-appointed job has been to write about government corruption and shady dealings in his blog.

The 36-year-old lawyer emerged as the most charismatic of the opposition leaders, working the crowds at anti-Putin rallies with a high-energy, call-and-response style.

It doesn't hurt that he's a handsome man, with blue eyes and a distinctive cleft in his chin.

Masha Lipman, an editor and media analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says "of all people who are prominent in the protests, he has the largest grant to call himself a leader and this makes him a scary challenge for the government."

Lipman says there's a potential danger for the government in prosecuting such a popular figure.

"Nobody knows [what will happen] if he is jailed. Would this act as an intimidating signal to the people or would it radicalize the protest?" she asks.

Navalny has been arrested several times already. Along with other opposition leaders, he served a 15-day sentence after a protest in May. That prompted Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience.

In June, Navalny was one of several opposition figures whose homes and offices were searched by Moscow prosecutors.

Case May Raise Profile

Government critics say the actions are signs that Putin is prepared to crack down hard on dissent.

But analyst Alexei Mukhin says he thinks any harsh government action against Navalny now would help him raise his profile among the Russian people. Mukhin is the director of the Center for Political Information in Moscow.

He says public opinion polls show that although Navalny is well-known among the Internet community, he has very little name recognition among ordinary Russians, most of whom get their news from state-run television.

In the past, Navalny has shown a nationalist, anti-immigrant streak that worries some of his liberal supporters.

He was involved in the founding of the nationalist group NAROD and declared that immigrants from Central Asia would never assimilate into Russian culture.

Facing Possible 10-Year Sentence

The latest charges against Navalny accuse him of being part of a scheme to steal government-owned timber several years ago when he was an adviser to the Kirov regional governor.

Navalny was investigated on similar charges last year, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence.

This time, the charges are more severe, and a conviction could bring as much as 10 years in jail.

In an interview on the independent Dozhd TV, Navalny said he's been told he should regard the charges as a gift that will draw more attention to his work, but he adds he's also aware of the dangers.

On the one hand, he says, he's glad that he is making enough problems for the regime to scare them, but he's not happy knowing that, in his words, "sooner or later, they will put me in prison."

Navalny has been barred from leaving the country while the investigation continues.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Russia, government prosecutors have brought criminal charges against a leading dissident named Alexei Navalny. He writes a popular blog that exposes corruption in the Russian government, and he helped lead the anti-government protest this past winter. Navalny says the charges are part of a campaign to crack down on opposition to the regime of President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Corey Flintoff has the story from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Before he entered the prosecutors' office, Navalny told reporters that he expected to be charged.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: For the past four years, he said, the Putin regime has been threatening to take action against him. In his words: I'm not happy about it, but it's part of the job. Navalny's self-appointed job has been to write about government corruption and shady dealings in his blog. The 36-year-old lawyer emerged as the most charismatic of the opposition leaders, working the crowds at anti-Putin rallies with a high-energy, call-and-response style.

MASHA LIPMAN: I think of all people who are prominent in the protests, he has the largest grant to call himself a leader. And this makes him a scary challenge for the government.

FLINTOFF: That's Masha Lipman, an editor and media analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. She says there's a potential danger for the government in prosecuting such a popular figure.

LIPMAN: And nobody knows actually what happens if he is jailed. Would this act as an intimidating signal to the people, or would it radicalize the protest?

FLINTOFF: Navalny has been arrested several times already. Along with other opposition leaders, he served a 15-day sentence after a protest in May. That prompted Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience. In June, Navalny was one of several opposition figures whose homes and offices were searched by Moscow prosecutors. Government critics say the actions are signs that newly re-elected President Putin is prepared to crack down hard on dissent. But analyst Alexei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information in Moscow says he thinks any harsh government action against Navalny now would help him raise his profile among the Russian people.

ALEXEI MUKHIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Mukhin says public opinion polls show that although Navalny is well-known among the Internet community, he has very little name recognition among ordinary Russians, most of whom get their news from state-run television. The charges against Navalny allege that he was part of a scheme to steal government-owned timber several years ago when he was an advisor to a regional governor. Navalny was investigated on similar charges last year, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence. This time, the charges are more severe, and a conviction could bring as much as ten years in jail. In an interview on the independent Diozhd TV, Navalny said he's been told he should regard the charges as a gift that will draw more attention to his work, but he said he's also aware of the dangers.

NAVALNY: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: On the one hand, he said, he's glad that he is making enough problems for the regime to scare them, but he's not happy knowing that - in his words - sooner or later, they will put me in prison. Navalny has been barred from leaving the country while the investigation continues. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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