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UPDATE 2-Bitcoin donations surge to jailed Kremlin critic Navalny's cause - data

(Updates with fresh Volkov comments)

By Anton Zverev and Catherine Belton

MOSCOW, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Jailed Kremlin critic AlexeiNavalny's movement has received bitcoin donations worth nearly$300,000 this year, outstripping the total amount it was givenin the cryptocurrency in 2020 at the prices at the time,according to a data analysis.

Navalny made headlines in January after he returned toRussia for the first time since being poisoned in Siberia lastsummer. He was arrested and last week handed a nearly three-yearjail term in a case he says was politically-motivated.

His anti-Kremlin movement has accepted donations in bitcoinsince 2016 via its network of regional political headquarters,an attempt to make it harder for Russia's intelligence servicesto track and potentially disrupt its funding.

Leonid Volkov, who is in charge of Navalny's campaign HQsacross Russia, told Reuters that overall donations had doubledin January month-on-month, though did not break the donationsdown by payment method or disclose how much had been received.

But the campaign's bitcoin wallet, viewed by Reuters, showedit received 6.242 bitcoins from Jan. 1 to Feb. 11. At currentrates, that's nearly $300,000.

That exceeds the value of all the bitcoin donations itreceived for 2020, according to calculations by cryptocurrencywebsite Protos, with each donation valued in terms of bitcoinprices at the time it was made.

Bitcoin has been rallying hard, jumping over 300%in 2020 and breezing past record highs to reach above $47,000 onThursday.

Volkov said it was incorrect to place a value of $300,000 onthe bitcoin donations this year using the current high exchangerate, however, since most of them had been made when thecrypto-currency was worth less than half its value today.

The largest single donations were made the day afterNavalny's return to Russia - one whole bitcoin - and on the eveand immediately after protests in his support on Jan. 23 - 0.86bitcoin and another whole bitcoin, according to data on theblockchain.com website.

"We had a very big inflow of donations," said Volkov. "Mostof the donations came from normal people. There's nothingcomplicated about it."

Since 2016, when Navalny's regional network began acceptingbitcoin transfers, more than 658 bitcoins have shown up in itswallets.

At the current price, that is worth about $31 million. ButVolkov said it was pointless to use such a calculation becausebitcoin's value had changed so much over the years.

Volkov said the 658 bitcoins reflected the accounts’ totalturnover though and were not all donations since the team usedthe wallets for their own operations converting other kinds ofdonations into bitcoin.

Total bitcoin donations probably totalled one third of theturnover sum, he said.

At the moment, however, the balance of Team Navalny'sbitcoin wallet has fallen to 1.49277086 bitcoins.

Navalny's team also accepts payments via bank and cardtransfers as well as via Paypal. Volkov said bitcoin donationsgenerally accounted for about ten per cent of the total. “But inJanuary this was not so.”

Russian authorities periodically block the bank accounts ofNavalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, a separate organisation hefounded which conducts investigations into official corruption.

"They are always trying to close down our bank accounts –but we always find some kind of workaround," said Volkov.

“We use bitcoin because it’s a good legal means of payment.The fact that we have bitcoin payments as an alternative helpsto defend us from the Russian authorities. They see if theyclose down other more traditional channels, we will still havebitcoin. It’s like insurance.”

($1 = 73.7352 roubles)(Additional reporting by Rinat SagdievEditing by Andrew Osborn and Alistair Bell)