MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin is learning that embarrassing leaks are a two-way street.
Infighting among Putin’s inner circle has led to a series of disclosures over the past few months that have shined a harsh light on the private dealings of the Kremlin court — much as Hillary Clinton has endured the airing of thousands of e-mails as a result of what the U.S. calls Russian hacking of her campaign.
As the Kremlin gears up for Putin’s last re-election bid in 18 months, anti-graft crusader Alexei Navalny has emerged as the conduit of choice for rival factions to scoop dirt on each other as they jostle to retain their fiefdoms. While Putin has largely stayed above the fray, anonymous tips and research by Navalny’s staff of 30 have led to a string of revelations about the extravagance of some of the Russian leader’s closest allies, including a new luxury home for his premier, army contracts for his personal chef and private-jet travel for the show dogs of a top official.
Navalny’s critics say he’s just a pawn in a bigger game, but the 40-year-old lawyer says it doesn’t matter where leaks come from as long as they expose officialdom — and the more strife sown along the way, the better.
“They’re starting to devour one another,” Navalny said at his foundation’s office in Moscow, which is paid for through public donations.
The latest bout of infighting started in the summer over the largest asset sale of the year — a controlling stake in Bashneft, a crude oil producer with more than $10 billion in annual sales. Igor Sechin, who runs state oil champion Rosneft and has worked with Putin since the 1990s, clinched the acquisition this month, but only after a bitter feud with premier Dmitry Medvedev and first deputy premier Igor Shuvalov, both of whom wanted Rosneft excluded from the sale.
As the debate intensified in July, Navalny published investigations on his website revealing that Shuvalov had acquired 10 adjoining apartments in a coveted Moscow skyscraper and spent millions to shuttle his dogs around Europe in a private jet. Shuvalov’s wife said the corgis participate in shows abroad “to defend Russia’s honor.”
Those disclosures were followed by newspaper reports detailing the use of a luxury yacht by Sechin’s wife and the Rosneft chief’s construction of an estimated $60 million villa in an exclusive area near Moscow.
Sechin won an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit over the property story, but by then Navalny had revealed that Medvedev was building a luxury home of his own with funds from a billionaire buddy’s charity. The premier’s spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said the estate in question is owned by the state.
Though hailed by fans as a Russian Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who’s bedeviling Clinton’s campaign, Navalny said that he has no ties to the anti-secrecy group and that his fund’s work differs in a fundamental way — it relies on open sources and citizen researchers, not on hacked data.
Even when the scoops aren’t his own, Navalny serves as an amplifier by tweeting about them to his 1.68 million Twitter followers.
“This is what Navalny does — he collects trash,” said Mikhail Leontyev, a spokesman for Rosneft and Sechin.