The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An interview with Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny is a leading opposition figure in Russia. (Reuters)
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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently spent about a year under house arrest, barred from most contact with journalists. He spoke to The Washington Post about his aspirations for Russia, about his fears after the killing of ally Boris Nemtsov and about how Ukraine’s allies can persuade the Kremlin to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Here are some excerpts.

After this year, where is the opposition headed, particularly after the killing of Boris Nemtsov?

This murder was sanctioned by the leadership of Russia one way or another, and this act of scaring people is aimed not at people like me, but those who are still hesitant. People who are probably around Vladimir Putin or members of the ruling elite.

The basic compromise of the authorities has been violated. Because they killed a person from the system, a person who once almost became the president of Russia.

So getting back to the question of where the opposition is now — despite the fact that we are accused of being extremists, we would rather have traditional types of work. Like participating in the elections. But, in fact, at the moment, we cannot do much except for organize protest rallies in the streets. So the political structure now looks rather primitive.

What would Alexei Navalny in 2015 tell Alexei Navalny in 2011?

I think about it a lot, and I try to understand what mistakes we made…. The idea that if we had done something differently, then there would have been revolution – this is nonsense. Yes, we should have worked better. We underestimated how far Putin was ready to go in order to keep his power and keep his popularity.

If somebody had told me back then, in 2011 or 2012, that there would be a war against Ukraine, or that Nemtsov would be murdered, you know, murdered by these special services — this would be like madness.

Maybe the main advice is don’t underestimate how far they can go, especially how far he can go, and don’t think he might worry about the future of Russia.

How is the opposition trying to regroup after Nemtsov’s death?

I do not want to be a dissident, like in Soviet times. I don’t like this role. However, in the current situation, we have to use recommendations and the experience of those times. So now the issue is not about organizing, not politics, but probably morals. We should do what we believe in.

[Related: Russian opposition is in disarray]

You said Nemtsov was one of the easiest opposition leaders for you to talk to because you approach politics in a similar fashion. Do you need someone to replace him?

It is impossible to replace him.

There are a huge number of people in the elite who hate Putin. They hate him because of sanctions, because they are now having fewer chances to get rich, because they lost money because of the markets, and so on and so forth. And especially to those people this shows that, “Okay, maybe you are not satisfied, but just don’t move in this direction, because this is bad. You think that we will not kill somebody who is famous all over the world? Who can pick up the phone and call McCain, Obama or Hillary Clinton? No problem. We will kill this person as well.” So this is the signal.

Putin once promised prosperity. Now that’s changed, but he hasn’t lost support.

Any hope of economic growth is useless. So that’s why he uses terror and fear, and uses these threats that in a civilized, educated society would seem funny.

I’ve said many times: The main lever of Putin’s rule has not been repressions, as many people think, but bargaining. He pays, in the broad meaning of the word. He increased salaries to the state propaganda outfits, he raised salaries for the special services, he paid bribes to the opposition parties, and then also Western elite. He hired propaganda people who could work in the West, and this was much more efficient than repressions. But now the situation is different, and repressions will be carried forward.

In Washington there’s a discussion about arming Ukraine to increase the cost for Russia. Is this a good way to help Ukraine? Is this a good way to calm the situation?

I do not think that supplies of weapons, well, lethal weapons, will change the situation dramatically. Just because the fact is that a military victory of Ukraine over Russia is impossible. Putin will get new facts that Americans are fighting the war in Ukraine and not Ukrainians. But I cannot assume that the Ukrainian army, even armed with American drones, will win a victory over the Russian army.

The supply of weapons is a somewhat popular step inside the United States. This is something for the American public opinion. “We armed Ukrainians so that they could resist.” I would say that introduction of visa and financial restrictions for oligarchs would hit Putin’s regime harder than drones.

If it had not been for economic and sectoral sanctions, Putin would have seized Odessa by now. And I think that self-confidence of Putin and his circle was, “The West is weak, the West is amorphous, and they will not be able to introduce economic sanctions."

So, of course, there was a certain effect. However, the idea to split the elites via personal sanctions did not succeed. Because personal sanctions should be introduced not against 12 people but against the party of war, against a thousand people.

So how long of a timeline are we talking about for your goals?

As long as is necessary. I’m asking this question very often, but for me the answer is obvious. I don’t have an alternative.

So I will do what I am doing. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes. Of course I wish I could be more efficient and of course I wish I could have these wonderful changes tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. In 2011, when I was asked how long Putin’s regime would last, I said 1½ years, not more. Okay, I made a mistake, but for me it hasn’t changed anything.

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