Russian site smokes out corruption
James Hill for The New York Times
MOSCOW — Before the Internet, a Russian dissident might have hoped to reach dozens of sympathetic readers with a mimeographed samizdat publication of forbidden material.
But in today’s Russia, Aleksei N. Navalny has managed to attract a vast audience with his Web site for investors, Navalny.ru, even as he takes on big state-owned energy companies in his crusade against graft, kickbacks and bribery.
A 34-year-old real estate lawyer by training, Mr. Navalny can reach as many as a million unique visitors in a day with his digital samizdat, as happened last fall with his scoop about embezzlement at Transneft, a state-run pipeline company.
That scheme, presented as a cautionary tale for those tempted to invest in Russian energy stocks, described executives setting up a series of shell companies to pose as contractors for Transneft’s project to build a 3,000-mile pipeline to China. One shell, for example, was registered in the name of a Siberian man who had lost his passport, according to the Nalvany report.
The post included an audit indicating that the contracting fraud had cost Transneft $4 billion. Both Transneft and the government accounting office, whose documents Mr. Navalny said he leaked on his site, have denied the corruption claim.
But Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin took the posting seriously enough to ask for an investigation, which is still pending.
Mr. Navalny, whose fame and unabashed political ambitions are surely helped by his blue-eyed good looks and acidic sense of humor, has clearly touched a nerve in Russian society. His blog appeals to Russians who wonder: if the country’s vast oil wealth is not trickling down to the public, where is it going?
“I do this because I hate these people,” Mr. Navalny said gleefully of his Web postings, which take aim at those he describes as the self-dealing managers in the oil and natural gas business.
Within Russia, Mr. Navalny’s celebrity “is growing almost as quickly as that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange,” Nikolai Petrov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a political affairs research group, wrote in December. Mr. Petrov wrote that Mr. Navalny “represents a new generation of political activists, one who sees the system’s vulnerabilities and targets his blows accordingly.”
A former activist in a liberal political party, Yabloko, Mr. Navalny says he will eventually run for public office. He now calls himself an advocate of the rights of members of the Russian middle class — people who have invested in the stock market and who he says are losing money to corruption and mismanagement.
Stock ownership here is tiny by the standards of the United States. Russians have opened 726,000 brokerage accounts, representing about 0.5 percent of the population.
But that number, and Mr. Navalny’s likely audience, is growing about 12 percent a month, according to Troika Dialog, a Moscow investment bank. Just as Americans seethed at wealthy bankers after the housing bubble burst, he said, Russians have started chafing at state company mismanagement during the oil boom.
“They see that Gazprom does not pay a dividend,” he said, “but the company parking lot is full of Mercedes-Benz cars.”
While potentially valuable to the owners of stocks and mutual funds, Mr. Navalny’s disclosures are not winning him friends in the executive suites of the country’s big energy companies.
The chief executive of Transneft, Nikolai Tokarev, a veteran of the Soviet K.G.B., has suggested that Mr.