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Alexei Navalny interview: Don't be fooled, I'm still Russia's best hope of ousting Putin

Exclusive: Seasoned opposition leader says he won't fall into the Kremlin trap of criticising his new presidential rival. But he does have a message for voters

Oliver Carroll
Friday 27 October 2017 21:34 BST
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in his office after being released from jail in Moscow on Sunday
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in his office after being released from jail in Moscow on Sunday (AP)

Alexei Navalny isn’t used to being a bystander. For several years, the opposition leader’s star has dominated the otherwise barren landscape of critical politics in Russia. His anti-corruption investigations drew in millions; his rallies attracted a new generation of demonstrators; his uninvited bid for the presidency caught everyone – including the Kremlin – unawares.

But last Tuesday, something changed. After weeks of rumour, the celebrity journalist and daughter of Mr Putin’s former boss, Ksenia Sobchak, announced she too would stand as a protest candidate in next March’s elections. What was more, and in contrast with Mr Navalny, the socialite looked like she had the tacit approval from the Kremlin for her bid. Mr Navalny’s supporters have since accused her of many sins – for splitting the opposition, for coordinating with the authorities, and for legitimising fake elections. She denies all three.

Meeting with The Independent in his Moscow offices barely a week after the Sobchak declaration, Mr Navalny refuses to say if his one-time friend told him of her plans. He would do his best not to discuss the subject, he said: “You understand what happened, why it happened, the motivations. You understand. I understand.”

Ms Sobchak has the right to run, conceded Mr Navalny; “But so do I.”

The lawyer, blogger, and politician did not get to see the start of Ms Sobchak’s presidential campaign. At that moment, he was sitting out the final days of a prison term in a Moscow detention centre; a 20-day sentence handed down for organising “unsanctioned” rallies. It was Mr Navalny’s seventh conviction since announcing his presidential run in December 2016. That means he’s spent every fifth day of his campaign in jail.

The prison routine is, by now, almost second nature: up at 6am; breakfast, served in dented metal bowls; an hour’s exercise in the yard; the endless clunking of iron doors; the wire gauze; the Soviet-style inspections; lunch; back to the cell; dinner; and lights out at 10pm. There’s always lots of sitting around. Since he’s deemed too dangerous to share a cell with anyone, there is lots of time to read too.

He read 20 books during those 20 days, but Hillary Clinton’s memoir about her failed US election campaign, What Happened, stood out. Not because he felt a new connection with the woman who saw years of planning and organisation disappear in a moment – although, one might imagine, that too – but because of her views on the media. Journalism is being undermined by clicks and manipulation, he says – but it isn’t only Donald Trump who is manipulating. The Kremlin is the “real master of the art”, and has been “feeding” the western media hype about election interference. “They think it is cool,” he says.

He complains that the media gets him wrong frequently. “Every interview with a foreign journalist has a question about nationalism and why I’m not dead,” he says. The first question exaggerates his position, he says; he only wants to introduce visas for Central Asian migrants. (A “joke” video he shot as a young activist, that seemed to compare migrants to cockroaches, does raise questions). As for the second? “I don’t know the answer to that question: Ask Putin why I’m not dead.”

Mr Navalny’s uncompromising politics have often put him and his entourage on the frontline. In April, he nearly lost the vision in one eye when a man threw green dye over him. His staff in the regions have been attacked frequently; the head of his Moscow campaign headquarters was assaulted with a metal pipe. His brother Oleg is in prison, serving the third year of a sentence that many interpret as a direct result of Mr Navalny's involvement in politics. Last week the European Court of Human Rights provisionally ruled the original trial unfair. Mr Navalny says his family is under constant surveillance too – “my wife notices it more than me."

But the opposition politician says he does not intend to soften his position. “What should I do, cancel everything?” he says. “If I take a step back, what will I say to Oleg? How will I explain these last three years?”

For a man who has just come out of prison, Mr Navalny appears relaxed and rested. Occasionally, however, signs of anger and frustration show: frustration at the thought that his sacrifice and organisational successes could be overshadowed by a new political reality outside of his control. Frustration at the thought that the Kremlin may be at play.

Sure enough, it is on the topic of Ms Sobchak that cracks begin to emerge in even the most careful diplomacy.

Mr Navalny says he is the only candidate ready to run a serious campaign. His team has a nationwide network of 80 regional headquarters and 170,000 volunteers – in the remaining four full months before the March elections, Ms Sobchak could not dream of getting close. “You can’t be considered a real candidate if you haven’t built up the proper infrastructure,” he says.

He says he cannot understand Ms Sobchak’s desire not to offend the president. In her first press conference on Tuesday, Ms Sobchak publically admitted she did not want to insult a man who “saved” her father’s life. (It is believed Mr Putin organised a special operation to evacuate Ms Sobchak’s father in 1997). Mr Navalny would never censor his criticism of the president – on either a personal or professional level. “Putin hasn’t helped my family,” Mr Navalny said. "Putin is the father of Russian corruption."

As if to underline the differences in the candidates, the next day following the interview, Ms Sobchak was granted prime time billing on Russia’s highly controlled state TV. She was given a sympathetic audience, furnished with Russian flags and posters agitating for Ms Sobchak’s candidacy. Experts invited onto the programme suggested the time had come for the Kremlin to “listen to the protest agenda”, and that Ms Sobchak was the one to represent it.

On her part, Ms Sobchak insists she has not agreed anything with the Kremlin. She says that – unlike Mr Navalny – she is well placed to return democracy to Russia without blood on the streets. For Mr Navalny, the idea of a soft transfer of power is quixotic – negotiations with the Kremlin always end in failure, he says, "and you end up losing the people”.

He wouldn’t be extending his offer of amnesty beyond Putin: “What next? Do I amnesty the people who jailed my brother? This was the main mistake we made in the 1990s. We need to change the whole government apparatus.”

Over the last week, Ms Sobchak has offered several olive branches to Mr Navalny. She said she would withdraw her candidacy if he were registered as a candidate, however unlikely that scenario seems. And in a YouTube interview with the popular blogger Yuri Dud, she revealed that she had suggested a compromise: that Mr Navalny’s loyal wife, Yulia, run as his proxy and the unity democratic candidate.

The presidential hopeful does not think much of either suggestion. He was running an “honest campaign”, he says; and people's votes were “not transferable”. For the same reason, he would not transfer resources to Ms Sobchak in the event that he was not registered: “If I’m not allowed to run, the elections would not be elections. Of course we’d have to boycott them.”

Critics would say the position was typical Navalny – inflexible, unaccommodating, brash. In the lead up to announcing her decision to run, Ksenia Sobchak herself accused him of attempts to “monopolise” the opposition, of creating a cult of leadership around him. But Mr Navalny is unapologetic. He says he’s earned the right to run. He says he’s earned the right to lead.

"If you want to challenge, please do," he says. "Do your own investigations. Find yourself facing several criminal prosecutions. See half of your relatives go to prison. And then yes, maybe, you can have a go at leadership.”

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