Thirty-five-year-old lawyer Alexei Navalny has emerged as the key figure in a recent wave of protests that have brought up to 100,000 people out onto the streets of Moscow. His anti-corruption blog and website, among Russia’s most popular sites, have highlighted outrageous official theft and waste, and when he dubbed Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party the “party of crooks and thieves,” the term rapidly became universal. Navalny has quickly eclipsed traditional opposition figures with his message that “Putin is a thief.” When he addressed a demonstration last weekend on Sakharov Prospect, the biggest in Moscow in 20 years, the crowd went wild. But while his anti-corruption message has wide appeal, his unabashedly nationalist politics scare many traditional liberals. In November Navalny participated in the annual Russian March, a 10,000-strong demonstration of nationalists who called for immigrants to be deported and for the Kremlin to stop subsidizing Russia’s Caucasian republics. Navalny spoke to The Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova in Moscow.
What do you think will happen next?
I am sure that neither the official leaders nor the opposition have any clear strategy, as what has happened in the last few weeks is unprecedented. The most important thing for us now is to stay honest with the protesters who trust us, so we do not lose them. After the rally of 100,000 people on Dec. 24, it has become clear that this protest is not going to calm down unless Putin fulfills our demands. Putin should not go for a third presidential term. By doing that, he would violate the spirit of our Constitution. The election commission did not register opposition candidates, which means that the election in March is not going to be fair by definition.
What are your demands?
We want Putin to cancel the falsified parliamentary-election results, register all political parties, and let us have new and fair elections. Putin should not participate in the upcoming presidential elections. The optimal scenario would be for Putin to announce new parliamentary elections. All our demands are public on video and on the Internet. We do not negotiate with the authorities outside of the protests; we try to stay honest with people. To satisfy our demands, Putin will have to realize that the world should not only belong to his billionaire friends like [oil trader and old Putin ally Gennady] Timchenko.
What is your personal attitude toward Putin?
I am not obsessed with the idea of hanging or killing Putin. He calls his own fellow citizens “Bandar-logs” [a monkey tribe from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book], damaging his own reputation as a politician with his own hands. None of his promises have come true. He promised us modernization, and we see how our rockets fall into the ocean. After a fair election he could remain a strong, influential figure in politics, but his mandate as a legitimate leader has expired. To avoid deep recessions or conflicts and let the country develop smoothly, he should go away. My feeling is that he stays only for the sake of protecting his friends from going to prison and for keeping his capital safe.
What has been the reaction of the authorities to your activities?
The only ways they know of dealing with the opposition are either to bribe us or create a conflict between us, the opposition leaders. None of their methods has worked so far. And more famous, smart Russians are joining our protest. Today we have Putin’s former minister of finance, Alexei Kudrin, standing next to media directors and opposition leaders on the same stage.
Some experts predict that you might be the target of violence or assassination attempts. Do you agree?
The authorities, I am sure, realize that the reaction to [the spilling of the] opposition's blood would [cause] the situation to get out of control, and that would not be in their interests, as Putin and his circle care too much about keeping their billions of dollars and palaces in Russia. Russian billionaires realize that Putin’s guarantees for them might soon be worth nothing and that no billions of dollars would save them from being taken to court. So his siloviki [former KGB cadres] might choose to suppress the opposition. He has no other team but them.
Let’s say tomorrow you got your chance to register and bring to power a new party. What kind of party would that be?
It does not matter whether you call it right or left—all sorts of American models would immediately turn into trash in Russia. Let's say I would want it to be social democrat (but any terms would have to be identified better); the party should be focused on fighting corruption and also promote a new immigration policy. There is nothing bad about that.
Do you have a solid consensus with other opposition leaders?
Unfortunately, what I see now is that most of my colleagues, no matter how passionately they were involved in opposition activity yesterday, feel eager to run and negotiate themselves a seat in some ministry. Though the authorities have not given us any invitation for negotiations yet. The life of the opposition struggle is not easy, but it is interesting.