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It’s the debit card that’s sure to pay it forward. Billionaire media mogul and devout Vladimir Putin critic Alexander Lebedev has announced that his bank will issue anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny’s new debit card and will pay a percentage of every purchase to Navalny’s fight against official graft. The project is only a part of Navalny’s growing clout with key commercial and financial backers, but will it pay off?
Lebedev, a former KGB officer-turned-eccentric oligarch, said his National Reserve Bank will begin by issuing up to 50,000 cards. The bank will divert one percent of every purchase toward Navalny’s Fund for Fighting Corruption. The idea for the card was originally introduced in May, when Navalny shocked observers by revealing that key financial players were willing to back his risky battle against official graft. Fund Director Vladimir Ashurkov said he hopes to raise around $300,000 annually from the dividends, The Moscow Times reported.
In his typically bold style, Lebedev announced he would issue the first card in Putin’s name, a symbolic nod to the president to lead by example in the fight against corruption – something which Putin himself has supported through his rhetoric. "I would like to 'marry' this project with the official position of the authorities," Lebedev said in a statement on his Web site. "This would show that they support citizens who want to finance the fight against corruption themselves."
For Navalny, and for the anti-corruption movement in Russia, this is a landmark moment. His years-long battle with corruption, which developed simultaneously with the anti-Kremlin movement that emerged last winter, had earlier been a mostly grassroots operation, sustained largely by outside donations from everyday supporters. And it seems the ground is only becoming more fertile for Navalny’s crusading efforts: according to a recent Levada Center poll, 29 percent of Russians – the highest number in more than a decade –perceive the authorities as purely corrupt. Even the Navalny brand itself has soared in recent months as another Levada poll found that 34 percent of Russians know who he is, up from a meager six percent in April 2011.
Which is perhaps why as of late Navalny’s mission seems to have caught the eye of major players willing to cast their lot with the outspoken lawyer-cum-opposition darling. In May Navalny announced his roster of high-profile donors, including Russian State Insurance Company Vice President Roman Borisovich, senior Alfa Group Director Alexei Savchenko and venture capital investor Sergei Filonov. Their contributions, along with a handful of other benefactors, have so far totaled about $136,000 this year, with a similar additional figure promised by year’s end, Navalny told the Vedomosti business daily in May.
Now, with Lebedev’s commitment, the work of Russia’s most famous opposition activist seems more institutionalized than ever. But analysts have mixed feelings. According to Masha Lipman, a politics and society expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the chances for the project to catch on are slim, and will be limited mostly to the Moscow urbanites whose support Navalny had enjoyed all along. “People who are modernized enough to have many cards might actually get one just as an act of tiny defiance,” she said. “I mean, why not – this is something that’s an innocuous way to tease the government a bit.”
Another question observers raise is Navalny’s ability to move beyond the realm of opposition politics and anti-corruption advocacy and into the world of business and commerce. This concerns not only this project, but also Lebedev’s recent successful nomination of Navalny to the board of directors at Aeroflot, in which the billionaire holds a minority stake. Writing in Kommersant Dengi, Oleg Khokhlov wondered about Navalny’s preparation: “What if Navalny will be unable to prove himself as an independent director?” he wrote on July 2. “His opponents will have a new argument in the debate over whether Navalny is able to move from jokes on LiveJournal to concrete action.”
But Lipman, meanwhile, sees something entirely different, claiming the partnerships are about top businessmen and other high-profile figures sending a particular message to the authorities: “We’re not afraid.” Especially against the background of increasing repression by the Kremlin, which has come in the form of police crackdowns, legislation ostensibly prohibiting protests, as well as NGO intimidation, it’s a prime opportunity for high-profile members of the business and financial community to step out and raise the stakes against Putin and an increasingly authoritarian system, she said.
And it’s a trend that may just be beginning. “When a group of people, Sergei Guriev [top Russian economist and rector at Moscow’s New Economic School] among them, revealed the fact that they were donating money to Navalny’s fund, this was an act of defiance,” Lipman said. “It also may even be a message in part to themselves: ‘We’re not to be intimidated so easily. We have our dignity.’”
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