This week has felt like a turning point for the Russian political opposition movement led by blogger-turned-political activist Alexei Navalny, who has emerged as President Vladimir Putin’s most persistent and influential domestic opponent. Navalny has been in prison since he returned to Russia in January, after several months in Germany where he received medical treatment following a poisoning attempt widely blamed on Russia’s security services. Navalny recently ended a 24-day hunger strike to protest what he said was a lack of adequate medical care.
A gaunt Navalny appeared in court via video link on Thursday to appeal an earlier conviction for defaming a World War II veteran in one of his web videos, one of a number of charges he is facing. Navalny used the hearing to launch a broadside against Putin, who he described as a “naked, thieving king.” Also this week, Russian prosecutors suspended the activities of Navalny’s nationwide political organization ahead of a court ruling which is expected to brand the group as an “extremist” organization, meaning its supporters could face long jail terms.
I spoke on Thursday with Leonid Volkov, who was chief of staff of Navalny’s presidential campaign and is one of the leaders of his political network, in an interview arranged by the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, which is awarding Navalny its annual Courage Award in June. A former mathematician and computer programmer before entering politics, Volkov now lives in Vilnius, Lithuania. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Keating: To start, how is Mr. Navalny’s health?
Leonid Volkov: Well, he is now trying to exit his hunger strike, so his recovery takes time, of course. After a hunger strike which lasts for 24 days, the clinical recommendations are that you have to spend approximately the same for the recovery process.
Since he ended the hunger strike, has there been any improvement in the conditions in which he’s being kept?
He is now in the prison hospital, in solitary confinement. But at least there is some medical supervision, or at least, someone who knows how to administer treatment. That’s pretty much it.
So, given the recent prosecutor’s order and that impending court ruling on the extremism case, how do you think you’re going to be able to continue operating in Russia, going forward?
Our movement is now undergoing a quite complicated reorganization. We have to rethink and reinvent many of the processes we are used to. We will not be able to operate offline at the scale we used to before. So, our task is to make our online operations, to that extent, stronger. That would compensate us from the loss of the possibility to operate offline.
Does that mean mass marches or street protests are off the table for now?
For street marches, the Kremlin has raised the stakes so much, that it’s now really very challenging to organize something. This is not only about fines now, this is about arrests. This is about the risk of being fired or expelled from the university. This is about prison terms. They are ready to imprison hundreds of people for participating in peaceful rallies. So, under these circumstances, planning for a rally, planning for a protest becomes quite impossible.
This doesn’t mean no protests will happen, because the fundamental reasons for the dissent are not gone. They will not be organized protests, but something that could spark for some quite random reason, like the Arab Spring, ten years ago.
Speaking of online organizing, as someone with a technology background, do you have any idea why Russia hasn’t managed to control the country’s internet, by say, blocking apps like Twitter and YouTube, which your movement uses, the same way that say China has?
They try hard. They actually now are in the position to blacklist any website, and any app. They have developed technical infrastructure for that, but it is true that they are not able to reproduce the great Chinese firewall.
The success of the Chinese approach is based on the fact that there is a substitute for everything. So they have Baidu, they have WeChat. Chinese users don’t need the real YouTube, Instagram and so on, because they have a full-scale infrastructure of domestic services. So they don’t care. Contrary to that, Russian government attempts to build, for instance, a national search engine to substitute for Google, and a national video hosting site to substitute YouTube, failed.
So even if though they could block YouTube now technically, it would become quite the challenge for a majority of Russian internet users. They don’t have a political mandate to do this, because they will have to do something with the, like, 80 million people who watch YouTube daily and will become angry, and could then become involved politically. The majority of this audience uses YouTube, not for political news and information, but to show their kids cartoons before they go to sleep. So of course, the Kremlin is smart enough not confront this audience. And that’s why internet still is a space of relative freedom in Russia now.
Russia is having election for the national legislature, the Duma, in September. Is your movement going to participate in those in any way?
Well, our candidates will not be admitted, as they are not admitted since 2013, when Navalny nearly managed to defeat the incumbent Moscow mayor, Sergey Sobyanin. But still this election will still be a very challenging thing for Putin and his party. Even government-backed polls suggest that the approval rating for Putin’s party, the United Russia, is now below 27 percent.
They currently hold 80 percent of seats in the Duma, and they want to keep them, and they need the Duma to be sterile, because this is the Duma that will be sitting also during the transition of 2024, when Putin will have to resolve the inheritance issue. It might be a transition from Putin to Putin. The decision is not yet made. So he needs a Duma that is absolutely ready to comply with anything. He doesn’t want to have any surprises there.
So of course, none of the real opposition candidates will be admitted to be on the ballot. But we have a political technology, our so-called smart voting, the tactical voting, which helps us to consolidate the protest vote. [Rather than field its own candidates, Navalny’s movement has recently worked to identify opposition candidates with the best chance of winning and consolidate support behind them.] We have managed to do so in the regional elections of 2019, 2020, in both cases unseating approximately 20 percent of United Russia incumbents in regional legislatures.
If you managed to repeat the same on the federal level, like if you managed to elect like 50 or 70 quasi-independents to the Duma, they will very much restrain Putin’s ability to do just whatever he wants.
What’s your assessment of the Biden administration’s approach to Russia so far?
It’s once again too weak. Putin doesn’t understand any attempts of bridge-building. He just understands it as weakness. So that’s just his psychology. He really thinks all his western counterparts are hypocrites. Of course they have to say things about human rights, free and fair elections, and et cetera, et cetera. But actually, of course, they’re just like me, he thinks. They care about money. They care about influence, they care about power.
And what the Biden administration does, is unfortunately only helping Putin to be even more sure. They say, “Okay, we will confront Putin on this and this, but we will work with them on this and this.” And from Putin’s logic, it means that they are weak, and that they are ready to compromise, and he can do whatever he wants. The only punishment will be a “deep concern,” a “grave concern,” a statement.
Maybe this is a diplomatic approach. But I am not a diplomat. I am a mathematician by education. So for me, it lacks basic logic. Putin violated Russia’s international obligations on pretty much everything. Russia had international obligations towards European Court of Human Rights, but it doesn’t release Alexei Navalny, despite an existing ECHR rule. Russia is a founder signatory of the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] Convention. Russia is now found in violation of this convention. Nothing, no consequences, no repercussions.
And now Biden says, “Okay. Okay. Of course we are deeply concerned for the fact that Putin violates human rights and chemical weapons things, but let’s talk to him on climate change.” Sorry. How could you expect that Putin will comply with his obligations with respect to climate change, if he just doesn’t put any value in his words, pledges, signatures, and so on?
The U.S. has already put so many sanctions on different parts of the Russian economy. Are there still things the U.S. do now that would put additional meaningful pressure on Putin?
That’s very easy. The only things that matters for Putin is money. That’s actually, that’s the main finding of the Putin’s Palace investigation. The man has had 20 years to fulfill whatever dream he could have. He could do whatever he wanted. He could fly to Mars. Twenty years of absolute unrestricted power in the largest and richest country in the world, with billions and trillions in proceeds from oil and gas. And what the investigation has revealed, that his uppermost dream was an enormous Italian-style palace with gold and red carpets. That says a lot about him.
He doesn’t want his legacy to be, I don’t know, a beautiful network of paved roads, or great universities, or whatever. His legacy is this fucking palace. And so, real leverage against Putin could be created from money. We don’t call for sanctions against the Russian economy, we call for one very simple thing. Mr. Putin is one of the richest, if not the richest, people in this planet. It’s well known where he stashes the loot that he actually stole from Russian taxpayers. The names of the holders of his assets are well known. Sanction them, and you will get a real leverage to talk to Mr. Putin, not from a weak, but from a strong position.
In February Amnesty International removed Navalny’s prisoner of conscience status because of some past comments that he has made about immigrants and minorities in Russia. What do you say to those who are wary of supporting your movement because of those statements?
Amnesty International fell victim of a disinformation campaign by Russian-sponsored media. They have been sent false quotes, false translations of real quotes, and also something real from 2007, which Navalny explained himself many times publicly in the past years. It was a classical and successful disinformation campaign.
Amnesty now is campaigning very strongly worldwide to support and to free Alexei Navalny. This campaign doesn’t put a lot of pressure on Putin, unfortunately. He’s well past, beyond the point where he would care about a hundred Amnesties, but still, I mean it’s another important example for how important the Navalny issue is for the Kremlin, and how effort the Kremlin is putting in discrediting Navalny, internationally.
What charges are you yourself facing now in Russia?
I can’t even count all of them. Money laundering, embezzlement. And then also there’s the “creation of an organization which violates basic human rights.” That’s the latest one.
I know you’re in Vilnius now, but do you have any concerns about your own safety?
Yes I do, after that, after what happened to the Skripals, after what happened to Navalny. Before August, 2020, the idea was that the worst thing that could happen with someone with the Russian political opposition is to be in prison. So if you leave Russia, you avoid this risk. But now if they tried to use nerve agents against the political opposition, not only against security forces retirees whom they considered to be traitors, then of course, no one could feel themself really safe.
How optimistic are you at this point that you might be able to return to Russia some day?
Well, of course I will be able to, but this will be a different country. This metaphoric, beautiful Russia of the future.