May 19, 2024

Russian Site Smokes Out Corruption

But in today’s Russia, Aleksei N. Navalny has managed to attract a vast audience with his Web site for investors,, 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. Navalny is a shill for the Central Intelligence Agency, ordered to smear the reputations of important Russian companies.

Nothing has followed from these charges so far. Mr. Navalny, though, became so unnerved that he gave his wife a list of phone numbers to call if he disappeared — other lawyers, journalists and opposition politicians.

“They could arrest me at any moment,” Mr. Navalny explained.

Indeed, after the Transneft documents were published, the government opened a criminal investigation against Mr. Navalny. It nominally has nothing to do with his Transneft disclosures. Instead, it involves his supposedly giving bad investment advice to a regional government several years ago, when he worked as an adviser to a local governor. That investigation, too, is still pending.

After the pipeline audit leak, men who identified themselves as security agents contacted clients of Mr. Navalny’s law practice, warning them against doing business with him, Mr. Navalny said.

Mr. Navalny has held down his day job as a real estate lawyer alongside his prolific online writing. He got his start in 2007 by suing Russian companies to force disclosure of accounting documents, using his standing as a minority stockholder owning a few shares. He would then publish the disclosures on a LiveJournal blog, eventually building up a following. He started last year.

He has fans among Moscow financial analysts and bankers, in particular.

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