Any victims out there? Police are questioning Navalny’s contributors across Russia, searching for anyone who thinks he cheated them. ‘Meduza’ spoke to two people who have been interrogated.
On February 20, journalists learned that police have started questioning individuals who have contributed money to opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Calls and summons from law enforcement have been reported in different regions across Russia, from St. Petersburg to Omsk. Some people have already been interrogated. Meduza spoke to two of these individuals to find out what the police are asking Navalny’s contributors and how the questioning is related to the criminal case against the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Yekaterinburg, 49 years old, programmer
I’ve never encountered any special attention from law enforcement before. This was my first time. But I had little doubt that it would happen. After all, this is already the third round of casting this net. First, they came to FBK itself, then there was the wave of raids and grabbing the assets of activists across Russia, and now they’re calling in donators for questioning. I’ve been pretty open about my support for FBK on social media and when talking to people.
Of course, I’m not the only one in Yekaterinburg who supports FBK. Maybe they’re going through contributors’ accounts one by one or doing extra monitoring online. I’ve never been a part of FBK, but in 2017 I participated in a volunteer campaign related to the  presidential election. I haven’t had any contact with Navalny’s local office since then. I just haven’t had time for it. My activity these days isn’t public in any way. Other than working as a programmer, I’m involved in competitive dancing and dancing events. I talk to a large group of people about this stuff, so maybe [the authorities] just went looking for people who are widely known in narrow circles.
The investigator called me yesterday evening. He introduced himself as a detective from the economic crimes unit and said he needed to question me as a witness in a money-laundering case. He insisted that the interrogation needed to happen as soon as possible, sometime the very next day. Later, after work hours, he delivered a summons by car. He never mentioned FBK by name, but the summons listed a case number. I plugged it into Google and it turns out that it’s the FBK case. It wasn’t exactly a shock. I doubt I could be linked to anything else.
The questioning was pretty uncomfortable, but it wasn’t particularly scary. And nothing really has happened, so far. Nobody’s smashed through my front door to search the place. Also, the police major was a pleasant and reasonable person, so the whole atmosphere was actually quite friendly. I showed up and the interrogator said there was a questionnaire distributed to regional departments that I needed to answer. So I had a look at the questions. They asked if I was familiar with prominent FBK members, if I found out about them on YouTube, and whether I could recite the names of any FBK members from memory.
Then they asked about the donations: Did I contribute in 2017 and 2018 and how much did I give? They wanted to know if I feel cheated and whether I’d like to file a complaint against the organization. I said no. Generally speaking, I’d say the officer was totally formal and without any zeal when asking the questions. The details didn’t interest him. When we were done, he was visibly pleased with having completed this apparently urgent work. After about 40 minutes, we shook hands and that was it. Whether that’s the end remains unclear.
Right now they want to find the hypothetical “victims.” The idea here is that they’re likelier to find something, the wider they cast the net. They don’t need everyone called in for questioning to say they were defrauded. They need just one victim who will say he was viciously deceived and robbed of a billion [rubles]. That would be enough to build a whole case. I expect they may well find such a “victim.” And there’s always the option of resorting to [phony contributors].
I think this criminal investigation is intended to destroy the Anti-Corruption Foundation or to complicate its work as much as possible. It’s just that there aren’t many ways to break FBK, given how many people there are in the organization. They can’t lock up everybody — something like that hasn’t happened before, at least. And last summer they saw for themselves that the group keeps operating even if you jail a dozen staff members.
Every month, since either 2016 or 2017, I donate 500 rubles [$7.81] to FBK. People ask me now what I’m going to do. I tell them I’m going to do what I must, come what may. I will continue to support FBK. I started helping them because I like their ideas and I believe I should support people who support me and my views in a more global sense. If I can’t carry out certain work myself, I believe I'm obligated to pay people who do it for me. I’m talking about both the investigative reporting and the political activity. I’d add that nothing would change if I stopped contributing to FBK now, since the criminal case concerns donations only between 2017 and 2018.
Omsk, 31 years old, volunteer at a local Navalny office
I volunteer at the local office, but I’m not that active. I can’t say that I participate in all the protests, but I take part in some. I’ve attended rallies in Omsk and in Moscow, I’ve joined one-person pickets, and so on. Once, I was arrested at a demonstration in Omsk, in September 2018 at a protest against raising the retirement ages. I was detained and fined 10,000 rubles [$155].
I started transferring money to FBK in 2016. Regularly, I send about 500 rubles a month, and it was closer to 1,000 rubles during Navalny’s presidential campaign. Maybe it went up to 1,500 rubles a month. I think maybe the police called me in because I crossed some threshold on donations.
Yesterday evening, I got a visit from an agent — a police major in the special cases division of the economic crimes unit. I opened my front door and he asked me if I transfer money to Navalny. I didn’t want to answer (there’s the 51st article, after all). Then he handed me a summons for the next day and strongly encouraged me to show up.
Today I went in and it took all of 15 minutes. I’m currently named as a witness in the case. The police major spoke to me very respectfully and calmly, showing no emotions and exerting no pressure. He immediately presented me with a printed list of questions. I read them over and selected the ones I would answer and specified what I wouldn’t answer, under the 51st article. The main thing that interested them was whether I’d transferred any money to FBK. They also asked if I’d transferred anything to Navalny’s [presidential] campaign. Then they wanted to know if I believe any damage was done to me. I said yes to the first two questions and answered that I do not consider myself a victim or feel I’ve suffered any damage. The remaining questions related to what I do for a living, my income, and so on. I didn’t answer, following the advice of all human rights activists. I didn’t want to give them any additional information. Initially, it was my idea not to answer any of their questions, but then I decided that my answers might help out somehow. By saying that I donated the money voluntarily and don’t consider myself a victim.
All this — the commotion and everything — has had an effect on me, of course. Especially when there were the police raids. I was scared that they’d come for me, too. But I’m going to keep supporting FBK. I think this whole case was created just to scare people.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock