Since February 2021, Alexei Navalny has been in Russian prison as the de facto leader of Russia’s opposition. Following an attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin by poisoning him, he was arrested.
With Navalny in jail, one of the most prominent voices of his banned political movement—the Anti-Corruption Foundation—is Leonid Volkov, who serves as Navalny’s chief of staff. TIME spoke to him over the telephone from Lithuania, where he was in self-imposed exile. He discussed what the war in Ukraine meant for Russia’s opposition movement ahead of his scheduled appearance at the annual 14th. Geneva Summit for Human Rights and DemocracyApril 6,
This conversation was edited to be more concise and clear.
The strategy of the Navalny Movement has been affected by the conflict in recent months. In the last month, how have your political calculations changed?
On one hand, it didn’t change that much strategically. Our two most important strategic projects for this year were to launch an independent media outlet for the Russian domestic audience, to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda. Second, we relaunched the Anti-Corruption Foundation to become an international NGO fighting corruption. Our plans became more current because of the war than before. In Russia they just switched off all independent media, and it was so enormously important that we were able to stay in line to counter its propaganda and to keep Russians informed about what’s actually going on.
The second thing was going after Putin’s friends’ assets abroad. So pessimistic were our expectations for personal sanctions. [sanctions on individuals]. Since 2004, we’ve been advocating personal sanctions, but without any success. One month or one week from now, who would have thought that sanctioning the West would become a necessity? There were 35 names that we wanted sanctioned. This was the most hopeful request. The U.K. list of sanctions, U.S. and E.U. are now available. More than 1,000 names are included. All 35 of them are there. Things have been very difficult for us.
Your team and Navalny have called for protests in Russian towns. Do you have any thoughts on whether these protests took place as widely as you expected? If not, then why not?
There is a thing that many people in the West don’t understand: the risks that ordinary protesters face in Russia. If you protest you could be arrested or expelled from school. For three to five years, you could be in prison. The situation has drastically changed in the past six years. The largest threat to a protestor was 10 days in jail. Now it’s 15 years. Ten years back, protesters were most likely to be fined 500 rubles. [approx. $6].
However, in just a few weeks over 15,000 people were taken into custody during protest rallies against war. That means hundreds of thousands people participated. More than 130 Russian cities were the scene of arrests. And very importantly, every protester in a country like Russia represents maybe a thousand people who are sympathetic but can’t afford to risk going to prison for five years; can’t afford to get fired from their job. So we know that many people are supporting us, but for very natural reasons, because they live in a totalitarian regime, they can’t turn out and participate. It was safe to at most share the information on social media for many years. This is now a crime that can lead to long imprisonment.
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The West asks, “Why aren’t Russians protesting?” What is it about Putin that Russians don’t protest? This assumption is wrong. They are. They are fighting. They don’t support Putin. It’s very clear to us. Putin has rendered it difficult to voice disapproval publicly. But it doesn’t mean that dissent has gone.
Putin is pursuing the hyper-nationalist narrative of Ukraine as an integral part Russia. What do you consider this belief to be for Russians at most? And how common is it? Can you put that in comparison to the Navalny support?
Quantitative research has become impossible. Many of the polls were conducted by us. There were in-house pollsters and we made phone calls. These days, people don’t speak. Our latest poll showed a drop in response rates below 5%. So, 19 out of 20 respondents wouldn’t talk to a pollster. Because it’s up to a 15 years prison sentence, for just calling the war a war. For not using the term “special military operation,” as Putin does.
So you can’t do quantitative research. However, the Kremlin-backed polling agency released numbers showing that 30% of people support the war and 70% don’t. First, the 30% figure is still 50,000,000 people. Second, although their figures are not completely accurate, they represent a rough estimation of people who spoke to government polling agents. And still one third of them say on the phone that they’re against the war. Already, they are willing to take enormous risks. These are some of the most important indicators about Russia’s mental state.
However, propaganda is still being used against some people. It is not uncommon to find Putin supporters and hardliners in the core. It is estimated to make up less than 10% of the total population. Another 20% to 30% maybe tend to comply with the propaganda because they don’t have access to other opinions. The propaganda they are receiving is not accurate. According to propaganda, Ukrainians are known for eating children alive. This is because they realize the television hosts are lying. But as they are not exposed to a different opinion, they don’t know how to discount it. They might say, ‘Okay, this guy is not telling the truth. Ukrainians probably boil children first before eating them.’
Your reaction is to build an independent media outlet. Putin is also attempting to crack down on social media outlets and independent media, including Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. In a climate where Putin is cracking down on independent media, how can you keep your channels alive?
The crackdown has not been complete. They’ve blocked Instagram. Our Instagram audience has decreased by 30% and not 97%. We have still 70% of our followers. A lot of effort was also made to educate people about VPNs. The majority of people want to maintain their independent access to information.
Telegram can be used. WhatsApp is also available. For 70% of our users, Instagram is now available. And they won’t risk blocking YouTube, because this would also hit an enormous nonpolitical audience. This will anger millions of viewers who enjoy watching cartoons with their kids. It is possible that someday they may become desperate and decide to destroy YouTube. But for now, I’m quite optimistic that we will be able to maintain contact with the majority of our audience. At the end of the day, as long as Putin doesn’t decide to just switch off the internet in Russia entirely, we’ll find out ways to reach the domestic audience.
How do you see the future? What does this mean for you and your organization?
Three scenarios can be used to determine the fate of any authoritarian regime. These are the first and last stages of biological death. Putinism can’t survive after Putin. It’s all built on one single personality. There’s nothing else but Putin in Putinism. You can’t do anything else.
Apart from biological death there are also popular uprisings, like the Black Swan-type events. They can make it difficult for people to express their disapproval for years. This could cause an unexpected explosion that is sudden and for reasons many would not consider relevant.
And the third scenario is the political elite, Putin’s inner circle, decides they’re not interested any more to work with him.
These three scenarios are not affected by the conflict in Ukraine. However, the probability has changed significantly. It is now unlikely that Putin will balance the system in time to remain at power. These probabilities have increased significantly for both the first and third scenarios. But I can’t think of a different scenario.
How about the longer term? How does Russia become a country after the long-running conflict with Ukraine? What does the Navalny movement do with this information?
You know, in many ways, surprisingly, I’m quite optimistic here. Putin has made many things possible that weren’t possible before. Take Russia, after the terrible war that ended in such a way as Putin has left. Is this Russia the future? Is Russia what it is supposed to be? Alexei and me, for instance. [Navalny]We talked about, during our discussions, how difficult it would be to run political campaigns in post Putin Russia. A large party that is nostalgic, and one of the largest parties of Putin supporters will also be represented in parliament. Their votes would be around 20% to 30%. They would likely force us to form coalitions with them.
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Imagine that there wasn’t war. Putin dies. Navalny is released. Fair elections are held, and there’s a Putinist Party, similar to the Francoists of Spain. [dictator Francisco]Franco, and even the Gaullists after Franco [President Charles] De Gaulle. The authoritarian leader is gone. Many people will feel a sense of nostalgia. It is now out of question. In post-war Russia, Putin’s party will be non-existent. This will be like how the Nazi party didn’t exist in Germany in the 1950s and 60s. Our version of the Nuremberg Trials will be held. After the crimes of Putin’s regime are made clear and explained to everyone, people will learn in high school about what Putin did and who he actually was.
People often ask what Navalny will do about Crimea when he becomes president. The answer is complicated. The annexation and violation of international treaties by Russia was one side. It also caused sanctions. And it led to isolation. However, between 2014-2021, Russian voters loved the idea for the annexation. Imagine the next president of Russia. If they were publicly advocating for the idea of giving Crimea back to Ukraine—before this war, they would probably be ousted. Russia will become a democratic country in the near future. We believe that this is what we want. This created an extremely difficult puzzle for the next President. Well, now I believe that after this war, it’ll be very clear that in order to rebuild relations with Ukraine, to return to the civilized world, Russia will just have to do it. It will be clear for everyone that it was like the first of Putin’s crimes, very clearly connected with other painful crimes that he committed.
These are two examples. However, I believe that even if there had been war, Post-Putin Russia would have many problems. There is now a way to find a better solution.
Russia was always going to have to be rebuilt. This judiciary and law enforcement cannot keep their power. They flouted every rule. They tortured, killed, and imprisoned. Our enemies said that this was impossible. It’s like rebuilding the country from scratch, where will you find new policemen and new judges and stuff? No one will object. Putin has lost his power. Only a complete restructuring can help Russia rebuild. And now finally, it’s really clear for everybody. And that’s a really important development.
The German economic wonder in the 50s and the 60s wouldn’t have been possible if Hitler had died in 1939 after the invasion of Poland, but before every other development. People would be still nostalgic about Hitler if Hitler had not been born, or if there hadn’t been the Holocaust. So many people would say, ‘okay, he was basically right.’ Once again, it’s just an example, and historical parallels are sometimes misleading.
The final question is: What’s Navalny’s health? Have his chances of survival improved?
Because we consider Putin to be rational, the situation has improved once more. Putin understood that the whole world was watching and that any harm to him could be extremely dangerous. This would have led to sanctions. Now, unfortunately, we have learned that Putin doesn’t give a damn about sanctions and isn’t actually rational. The risks to Alexei since the start of war have increased significantly. People tried to kill Alexei a year and half ago. We know these individuals are insane and don’t have any limitations.
Yet, I am confident that Alexei will persevere despite all of this. He’s actively involved in our operations. He is open to new ideas, and he will continue to invent new projects as long as we can keep in touch with him via lawyers. He believes that there are increased risk factors. But it’s not a legitimate reason to change his behavior.
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