Saturday, April 29, 2017

Alexei Navalny on Putin's Russia: 'All autocratic regimes come to an end'

Alexei Navalny is in good spirits for a man who can hardly step outside without being insulted, assaulted or arrested. Earlier this month he was released from a 15-day stint in a Russian jail. And on Thursday, in Moscow, unknown assailants threw green dye in his face, the second such attack in recent months. But his habitual half-smirk never seems to waver.

Perhaps it is because, as Vladimir Putin prepares to stand for yet another presidential term in elections next March, Navalny is threatening to bring some life to the arid landscape that is Russian politics. Navalny was imprisoned because of a protest he called for on 26 March. It surprised everyone with its size. In Moscow alone, police detained more than 1,000 people, and jailed dozens. Although the numbers were small in absolute terms, people protested in dozens of towns across Russia, marking a worrying new development for the Kremlin.

For Navalny, the fortnight behind bars seems to have been an energising rather than a demoralising experience. “There were some others in the jail, and for all of them it was their first protest in their lives,” says Navalny when I meet him in his office in a Moscow business centre. “When they saw me walking past, they were calling out, ‘When’s the next protest?’ They weren’t asking if there would be one, they wanted to know when.”

Navalny, 40, is a lawyer-turned- campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation carries out investigations into the wealth of Putin’s inner circle. After some years when he was on the fringes of liberal politics but known for his Russian nationalist views, Navalny emerged as the main opposition leader in the wave of protests that accompanied the build-up to the last Russian presidential election, in 2012. The day he was arrested, security agents showed up at his office, packed up all the electronics and walked off with them. When I visit, nothing has yet been returned. He is working on a MacBook with a sticker on it bearing the three-letter Russian word “VOR”, meaning “thief”. A grotesque caricature of Putin’s face peers at me through the O. 

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov looks down at us from a calendar released by the foundation, listing its key investigations. In 2015, Navalny alleged that Peskov had spent his honeymoon on one of the world’s most expensive sailing boats, and spotted him wearing a limited-edition watch worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. (Peskov denied the boat trip and said the watch was a wedding gift.) Navalny has also accused deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov’s wife of using a private jet to fly her pet corgis around Europe, and obtained drone footage of the palatial residences of other ministers and top officials.

Navalny’s most recent investigation was into the prime minister and one-time placeholder president, Dmitry Medvedev, alleging that the man who was once heralded as the beginning of a new liberal era for Russia in fact controlled an empire of luxury residences, vineyards and yachts. “It really pissed people off,” says Navalny. It was the Medvedev investigation that brought people to the streets in March. “Everyone already thought Medvedev was pathetic and pointless, but it turns out he’s pathetic, pointless and a billionaire.”.. read more: