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Russia: The blogger strikes back

He’s already been sentenced to prison; now he’s under investigation for his campaign finances.

But as the Russian authorities turn up the heat on opposition leader Alexei Navalny — who’s running for Moscow mayor while out on bail pending the appeal of his criminal conviction — the country’s most famous anti-corruption blogger has resorted to what he does best: uncovering alleged graft.

The whistleblower on Tuesday released what he claimed was evidence that incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s 26-year-old daughter owns a $3.5 million apartment in central St. Petersburg. Last Friday, Navalny posted documents allegedly showing that Sobyanin’s other, 16-year-old daughter has owned a $5 million Moscow residence since 2010.

In both cases, he questioned how Sobyanin — who was appointed by his close ally President Vladimir Putin — could afford such luxury when he earned only about $815,000 in the last ten years, according to Navalny’s estimates.

Tuesday’s accusations carried extra significance because they arrived a day after officials rolled out fresh allegations against Navalny, charging that his campaign illegally accepted funding from foreign donors through an online payment system.

“More than 300 foreign individuals and organizations, and anonymous donors from 46 countries (including the United States, Finland, Britain, Sweden, and Canada) from 347 IP addresses have sent money to the electronic fund of Navalny and members of his campaign headquarters,” the country’s Prosecutor General said in a statement.

It added that the evidence would be forwarded to the Interior Ministry, which would decide whether to launch a criminal case.

Navalny rejected the accusation, while a spokesperson for Yandex.Money, the online payment system, told Russian news agencies that prosecutors had never contacted the company during their investigations.

The allegations are part of the authorities’ increasingly puzzling treatment of Navalny in the lead-up to the Sept. 8 vote.

After Navalny and a colleague were sentenced to five- and four-year prison terms, respectively, last month for alleged embezzlement, the same court surprised observers by setting the opposition leader free, allowing him to stand in the mayoral elections pending his appeals process.

Some experts say the mixed signals represent a split between elite factions within Russia’s clunky bureaucracy over how to handle Navalny and his increasing popularity.

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says Sobyanin’s team has fought to include Navalny in the race to add a dose of legitimacy to the incumbent’s apparently inevitable victory.

That may have displeased the government’s influential hardliners, who are gunning for Navalny’s imprisonment an elimination from politics.

“This is an obvious sign that the authorities have lost their internal monolithic structure,” Oreshkin said.

Polls give Sobyanin a commanding lead over Navalny’s paltry, mostly single-digit ratings. But while the mayor’s numbers have fluctuated slightly since early summer, Navalny’s appear to have only risen.

Some observers believe the authorities high-profile treatment of Navalny has increased the blogger’s popularity.

“Every boost in Navalny’s popularity so far been connected to one or another scandal,” wrote Anton Orekh, a columnist for Echo Moskvy radio on Monday. “The more they’ve tried to squash him, the more popular he’s become.”

Current speculation is over whether Navalny can score a propaganda coup for Russia’s scattered opposition by securing a double-digit result of up to 20 percent despite his apparently impending loss. Oreshkin says that could send Navalny from “marginality” to mainstream political life.

Some have even wondered whether the vote may enter a second-round run-off between Sobyanin and Navalny, a worrying prospect for the authorities.

Experts say that’s highly unlikely, however.

They include Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information in Moscow, who nevertheless agrees that Navalny’s candidacy marks a major turn in the protest leader’s career that may cement him as a legitimate political actor.

“Until now, he was just a civic activist, a blogger — anything but a politician,” Mukhin said. “No matter how many votes he collects, for Alexei Navalny, this is about his path into politics.”

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