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The French Connection In Trial Of Putin Critic

An accusation, later withdrawn, by French cosmetics giant Yves Rocher stands at the center of the case of against celebrated anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny. Who's pulling the strings?

May 2013 protest in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow
May 2013 protest in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow
Marie Jégo

MOSCOW — Russian justice is on full display in the trial of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the trial that began last week, the celebrated blogger and lawyer is accused, along with his brother Oleg, of swindling the French comestics company Yves Rocher. Navalny could face a sentence of up to 10 years.

The two men have been charged with embezzling 26 million rubles ($723,800) from Yves Rocker Vostok, the company’s Russian branch in 2008 when Oleg Navalny worked as a shipping department manager of the Russian postal service.

Yves Rocher, a worldwide giant in the cosmetic industry with an annual turnover around $2 billion, had signed a contract with the brothers’ transportation company. The French company declared much later — well after the contract had expired — that they had been overcharged for a service with so few advantages. In a word, it was an alleged scam.

The criminal case began in December 2012 when Bruno Leproux, the French manager of Yves Rocher Vostok, filed a complaint. Investigators were then quick to interrogate and search the homes of the Navalny brothers and those close to them. The press questioned the aggressive investigation, convinced the zealous inquiry committee had some special interest in this case because of the Alexei Navalny's very public criticisms of the Kremlin. Bloggers wrote that the French company had been subjected to pressure from Russian authorities, with some even calling for boycotts of the company’s products.

An act of manipulation?

The brothers were quick to denounce what they characterized as a crude act of manipulation. They acknowledged that their company had had a contract with Yves Rocher Vostok to send cosmetics to a region in central Russia, but asserted it was a legitimate business deal. The exchange had ended after three years when the contract expired, and Yves Rocher mentioned no fraud upon completion of the contract.

The current trial is just the latest public showdown for the lawyer and fierce opponent of Vladimir Putin — even on the issue of Ukraine, rare among Russian opposition activists. He became popular by denouncing growing corruption within the Kremlin on his blog.

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Navalny at the courthouse in 2011 — Photo: yfrog

While Navalny is idolized by many who see him as a kind of justice fighter, he is a thorn in the side of Russia’s elite. Now under house arrest, he has been forbidden to use the Internet or his telephone. In July 2013, Navalny was given a five-year suspended sentence for allegedly embezzling funds from the state-owned KirovLes company. But those accusations were also widely disputed.

While the noose tightens around the opponent’s neck, Russian justice is using Kafkaesque methods. According to Russian law, the defense in the current trial gets access to the prosecutor’s records only at the very last moment. (There were 157 volumes of files in the Yves Rocher case). In fact, the Navalny brothers just learned then that Yves Rocher had withdrawn its complaint a long time ago. Yet the trial is still on the table.

“The withdrawal had no consequence,” Alexei Navalny wrote on his blog, challenging the ban that was imposed on him. “The searches and questioning are still going on, as if nothing happened, while Yves Rocher remains silent.”

The Georgian writer Boris Akounine, who often stays in France, has been moved by this case. In an open letter to Yves Rocher, he says he finds it regrettable that the company “helped Putin’s power to isolate” Alexei Navalny. He describes the latter as “the man who fights against state corruption with boldness and consistency.

He continues, “If the most famous Russian opponent goes to jail because of the most famous French company in Russia, then the name of Yves Rocher will be equated with shame.”

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