Interview with Alexei Navalny 'The Kremlin Blocks Every Alternative to Putin'
Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition figure, was just released from jail after widespread protests against government corruption. In an interview, he speaks about Putin's future plans for the country, the new generation of activists and why previous protests failed.
At the end of March, Russia's best-known opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, 40, called for nationwide protests against corruption and tens of thousands of people took to the streets. Afterward, he was detained for 15 days. He was released on Monday, April 10 and met with reporters from DER SPIEGEL one day later for an interview at the offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation in a Moscow business center. Navalny's spirits were high and he came across as combative. He was still planning to travel to other parts of Russia to promote his potential candidacy for the presidency in 2018. He has called for further national protests to be held on June 12.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Navalny, you've just been released from jail. What was it like?
Navalny: You have to imagine jail like a dirty dormitory where you don't do anything except sleep and read. We were four people to a cell. The others were normal people -- one had had a fight with a neighbor, another had insulted a police officer. No other political prisoners like me. They are carefully separated from one another, even during yard exercise.
SPIEGEL: Did you still talk with the other prisoners about politics?
Navalny: For days. All of them had heard of me, all of them wanted to talk. Even the police officers with whom I sat in the bus after my arrest had seen my film about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. They asked what everyone always asks: Why I haven't been killed, and why I haven't been put in prison yet.
SPIEGEL: A huge number of young people took part in the protests that you called. That came as a surprise to many -- people thought this generation was apolitical.
Navalny: That didn't surprise me at all! First, I had seen earlier on Vkontakte ...
SPIEGEL: ... a kind of Russian Facebook ...
Navalny: ... how young the people were who wanted to come to the demonstrations. And second, it was clear to me that the political pressure on high school and college students was having the opposite effect. In Bryansk, secondary students were warned not to take part in the protests. A discussion about it with a school director was recorded and watched millions of times. Since the 1990s, Russia has lacked the kind of student movement that existed in Eastern and Western Europe. The last time there was a movement like that here was during the Czarist era.
SPIEGEL: Why did these young people take to the streets?
Navalny: Poverty! That, at least, is an important factor. The living standard here has been deteriorating for the past five years.
SPIEGEL: You don't notice that in Moscow so much.
Navalny: In Tomsk, I asked young people how many of them earn less than 20,000 rubles a month, that's 330 euros. All of us, they answered. And that is in a university city that used to live from oil! People often say that I represent people who earn a lot of money. Of course, a person who is well-educated and affluent is more likely to support me than Vladimir Putin. But that doesn't automatically mean that the others are against me.
SPIEGEL: What distinguishes the current protesters from those who demonstrated against the fraudulent 2011 parliamentary election?
Navalny: The main difference is geographical: Now demonstrations are taking place in locations where they never did before, in Dagestan, in Tatarstan and in Bashkiria. Otherwise, there aren't many differences. Social media, which has become our last remaining way of communicating with one another and of articulating our criticism, have a younger audience, that is all.
SPIEGEL: Your film about Medvedev's alleged wealth was viewed on YouTube 18 million times. Medvedev has described the film as "nonsense" and compared it to a "compote" stewed together with various and sundry accusations.
Navalny: What a pathetic appearance. He waited one month and all he could come up with was the word "compote!"
SPIEGEL: Will the allegations have consequences for Medvedev?
Navalny: His political prospects have now been damaged. He supposedly got drunk for a week right afterwards and he looked like it, too.
SPIEGEL: Medvedev has not sued you -- but billionaire Alisher Usmanov, whom you accuse of having given Dmitri Medvedev a residence valued at 5 billion rubles, now intends to.
Navalny: Usmanov is surely not doing so of his own accord. Obviously, someone asked him to sue me.
SPIEGEL: Officially, the Kremlin acts as though it is fighting corruption, with five governors having been arrested -- the fifth one just recently.
Navalny: The governors are being arrested in order to steal some of my thunder. Besides, Putin needs to terrorize his own elite. He is more afraid of those in his own surroundings than any protests; there are people there who are at least as critical as I am because they see up close that the system doesn't work. He wants to silence them.
SPIEGEL: Will President Putin run again in the 2018 election?
Navalny: Of course! Putin wants to be the czar of this new Russian empire that he is rebuilding. I think he is really obsessed with the idea.
SPIEGEL: Will you be allowed to run?
Navalny: We want to force them to register me, like we did during the 2013 Moscow mayoral race. Back then we threatened a boycott. And then the Kremlin decided it was better to let Navalny participate -- he'll get 8 or 9 percent at most.
SPIEGEL: Instead you won 27 percent of the votes, a significant result, and it almost led to a runoff.
Navalny: As a result, as far as I know, the people who are against my candidacy now have the upper hand in the Kremlin. They say: Who knows what the election result will be? We already made that mistake once. And they are also afraid of all the things I would say if they let me run. For 17 years, elections in Russia have followed the same pattern: Nobody criticizes Putin, nobody runs a real election campaign, the whole process takes place quietly over a period of two months. The Kremlin blocks every alternative to Putin. He doesn't want a candidate who will travel through the country and speak loudly about Russia's problems.
SPIEGEL: Why has the opposition gone along with this game for so long?
Navalny: Have you ever been in the new Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg? There's a ballot from the 1996 presidential election in the exhibition and it has exactly the same names on it as appear now. Communist Party leader Gennday Zyuganov, the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, the right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Only Boris Yeltsin was replaced, by Putin. No opposition politician has ever taken responsibility for his or her election failures.
SPIEGEL: In your campaign platform, you call for a special tax for oligarchs, the doubling of health expenditures and a minimum wage of 25,000 rubles. It sounds as though you have swung to the left.
Navalny: Let's just say: It doesn't sound like what one is used to from our liberal opposition. Unfortunately, people expect a Russian opposition politician to be a manic libertarian who thinks the oligarchs are great, who isn't interested in the problems of retirees and who believes the invisible hand of the market will resolve everything.
SPIEGEL: Your proposals aren't particularly concrete. How do you intend to finance everything?
Navalny: Russia spends enormous, senseless amounts of money on the army and the police. We have one of the top rankings in the world when it comes to the number of police officers -- but when it comes to the number of murders, we are also right at the top. Besides, almost 30 percent of the budget is secret! Nobody knows what happens to this money. During public tendering, 1,500 billion rubles are stolen every year. The fight against corruption would free up a considerable sum.
SPIEGEL: Only six years ago, you were still active in nationalist circles. Even many of your supporters found the people with whom you allied yourself at the time to be unpalatable. Was it a tactical move or one made out of conviction?
Navalny: Between 2005 and 2011, I did a lot to bring together the market-friendly liberal and nationalist wings of the protest movement. That is true. And yes, I am still against visa-free entry from Central Asia into Russia.
SPIEGEL: Why did the protests of 2011-2012 actually fail? What did the opposition do wrong at time time?
Navalny: There is no recipe for toppling the regime in a couple of months. That is a historical process that we cannot steer. Fifteen-hundred people participated in my most successful protest in 2010. Today, a rally with fewer than 30,000 people is considered a failure. Something has developed despite all the setbacks. But the most important reason for the failure was the violent crushing of the protests. If we compare the regime of 2012 with the one from 2017, it feels like we are talking about two different countries. We now live in a country with a thousand political prisoners, a country where each week there are new trials, where people are put in jail because they liked something on the Internet.
SPIEGEL: Some of the people who took part in the large protest in May 2012 on Bolotnaya Square are still incarcerated today. And yet you have still called for an unauthorized protest in March. Can you justify that?
Navalny: I am aware that I bear responsibility -- for my brother, who is in jail, and for the prisoners from May 2012. It is not a pleasant thought. Nevertheless, newspapers reported about my brother on their front pages. If some blogger in a rural area is arrested today, then no journalists, lawyers or human-rights activists visit them, because now there are too many cases like that. If we want to prevent that, then we need to keep fighting for political change.
SPIEGEL: Many wonder why you are still able to walk free in a such a repressive system and even lead expensive election campaigns. Who finances you?
Navalny: We are open about everything. My Anti-Corruption Foundation is well-funded by Russian standards, with an annual budget equivalent to 750,000 euros. But the average individual donations are only about 11.50 euros.
SPIEGEL: Based on your income tax return, you have a solid personal income. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Russian government to pay you about 50,000 euros in damages. Where did the remaining 90,000 euros come from?
Navalny: That's income from my law firm. My license to practice law was revoked, but a few clients have stuck with me.
SPIEGEL: What kind of people want to be represented by a prominent enemy of the Kremlin?
Navalny: As a lawyer, I tend to be disadvantageous to my clients. But those who continue to retain me do so because they also support me.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear you are being used?
Navalny: Nobody uses me. But, of course, my work is used. If I attack Igor Sechin ...
SPIEGEL: ... the head of the state oil company Rosneft and an opponent of Medvedev's ...
Navalny: ... then that helps someone else. And when I attack Medvedev, there are loads of people who think that's great. Though I unfortunately do not even know if I am weakening him or strengthening him! Maybe Putin wanted to fire Medvedev a month ago, but how is he supposed to do that after my film? In an opaque system, everything can be used somehow. I can't change that.
SPIEGEL: While you were in jail, Russia and the U.S. embarked on a collision course over Syria. What do you think of Putin's Syria policy?
Navalny: Russia should join the international coalition against Islamic State. It is absurd that we are intervening on the side of the Shiites in a war between Sunnis and Shiites even though almost all Russian Muslims are Sunnis. Putin is creating big problems for us in his attempt to help Bashar Assad.
SPIEGEL: But it did recently look as though Putin had found a supporter of his Syria policies in Donald Trump.
Navalny: After Trump's election victory, I explained in a video why there would be no friendship with Trump. The contradictions between the systems are too great. And Putin needs an enemy. He wants to be the leader of the anti-American, anti-European world. And given that he cannot be friends with their heads of state and government, he instead needs to generate scandals and resistance.
SPIEGEL: In Angela Merkel, he at least has one opponent left. Without her there wouldn't be any EU sanctions against Russia. What should Russia's approach to those sanctions be?
Navalny: We should fulfill the Minsk Protocol. The main reason for the sanctions is that Russia broke a taboo: It triggered a war in Europe. Crimea is a problem, but the most painful part of the sanctions is tied to the war in the Donbas. As soon as Russia takes real steps to prevent shots from being fired there, this part of the sanctions will be lifted.
SPIEGEL: At your appearances, you say: My foreign policy consists of finally building better roads and the payment of higher wages. It sounds like you are trying to avoid the topic.
Navalny: I am not avoiding it. But I believe, and in this sense I am different from Putin, that Russia should not isolate itself. Everything that happens in our country is justified through Syria or Ukraine. But when one's own citizens only make 300 euros, one can't have much clout in foreign policy. Let's start with colonizing our own country. When I visit my brother in jail, I drive through the most densely populated part of European Russia -- and I don't see anybody, kilometer after kilometer. That would be a great opportunity to apply our energies.
SPIEGEL: You are by far the best-known face of the opposition; younger fellow campaigners look up to you. Does this role sometimes go to your head?
Navalny: I encourage all my colleagues to run for office themselves. But it has become extremely difficult in this system to become a prominent opposition politician. I no longer have any rivals to have a debate with. I need competition. And the people will soon tire of me. They say: Navalny, It's always just Navalny. We want to see someone new.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Navalny, we thank you for this interview.