Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and his colleagues have had an especially turbulent past few months.
Last August, Navalny survived a near-fatal poisoning by a nerve agent that he blamed on the Kremlin. He spent five months recovering in Berlin, while working on a would-be-viral video exposé, alleging that President Vladimir Putin owns a $1.3 billion palace, financed by members of his inner circle (Putin denies this). Navalny’s arrest on his return to Moscow on Jan. 17 and the release of the palace investigation a few days later prompted mass protests across the country. Thousands of people were detained in the most widespread protests the country has seen for decades.
Then on Feb. 2, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating parole from a 2014 embezzlement case. The ruling was widely seen as an attempt by Putin to silence his fiercest critic. Several members of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) have been fined, arrested, placed under house arrest or forced to leave the country. Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for FBK, was put under house arrest until March 23 for breaking Covid-19 rules. Belarusian national Vladlen Los, a lawyer for FBK, was deported to Belarus with a ban on re-entry until November 2023. Russia released an arrest warrant for Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s Chief of Staff, which extends to a number of former Soviet countries, Russian media reported on Feb. 10.
Volkov, who is currently in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, says jailing Navalny will not only fail to stop the opposition to Putin’s regime, it will strengthen it. “The fundamental reasons behind the protests will not fade away with Putin in the Kremlin, Navalny in prison and the economic situation deteriorating,” he tells TIME. In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Volkov speaks about what is next for the Anti-Corruption Foundation — and why he believes Navalny will be released sooner than many people think:
TIME: How was jailing Navalny a risk for the Kremlin?
Volkov: By jailing Alexei Navalny the authorities have helped turn him into a tool against themselves. Navalny is now considered by Russians to be political opponent number one for the President. People who are unhappy with Putin’s Russia for this or that reason—economical, social, ecological—naturally see Navalny as a symbol for their protest and a way to channel that. We anticipated this situation. It will very much help us to organize and streamline protests over a range of problems against Putin under our umbrella.
This has already happened. The protests after Navalny’s arrest were more widespread than we’ve ever seen in Russia. More people across the country turned out despite the higher risks involved in participating in an unsanctioned protest. It wasn’t just about Navalny. People are tired of Putin’s 21-year rule. Another reason is the economy. The income of an average household has declined for eight years in a row. But of course people were also outraged about the poisoning and arrest of Navalny, and his investigation into Putin’s palace. People realized that he was arrested for daring to survive the poisoning.
Does Putin really care about the international response?
Of course he does. International condemnation is important but international sanctions against Putin’s allies and partners is essential. These would hurt Putin and the elite. That’s why we’re pushing hard for them. Most of the elite feel integrated in Europe and they don’t want to break ties; they want to send their children to school there, buy property in London or France, do business there.
Targeted sanctions would lead to intra-elite conflicts that can threaten Putin’s grip on power. The system of loyal elites that Putin carefully built is diverse; they are top government officials, the siloviki [politicians who have a KGB and military background]. [These are] Putin’s wallets, the nominal holders of his assets, and they have different, often conflicting issues. Putin presides over their situation as a supreme arbiter, to whom they can appeal. The consensus among them is that they need Putin because he protects them and helps them to get richer. When, for example, an oligarch’s assets in the West are frozen and he can’t travel to see his children in Europe, it will cause more tension and could destroy the consensus.
How are you going to keep the momentum going?
We are currently looking for other ways for people to express their sympathy and fight fear.
We managed to reach a new audience through our investigation into ‘Putin’s Palace’. Tens of millions of people followed this. But the majority probably did not come out to protest because of the risks of being beaten or arrested, expelled from universities and losing their jobs. We’re trying to avoid that. We’re encouraging people to go out into their residential courtyards and to turn their phone lights on this Sunday. In several months, we will turn to the streets again. We’re spending some time preparing better campaigns to reach not only devoted activists, but a new audience.
How does Navalny’s absence affect the opposition movement?
We don’t need another face. The Anti Corruption Foundation is not a small organization. We have about 250 paid staff. Working in his temporary absence is not new for us. Navalny spent the whole year of 2014 under house arrest. From 2017 to 2019 Navalny was arrested about 12 times and spent a total of six or seven months in prison. Last year, he was poisoned and spent a couple of months rehabilitating. I have been able to communicate with him about strategic plans through his lawyers. It is weak communication and he is not granted any confidentiality. But even so, we have some communication channels and it is at least enough for us to coordinate on major political strategy issues. We have a clear plan for 2021, but not beyond that. The situation in Russia can change so dramatically that it’s not always worth planning for years in advance.
Will Navalny’s wife, Yulia, play a more active role in the opposition movement while he is in prison?
She played an active role in the family matter of saving her husband and getting the international reaction necessary to get Alexei flown from Russia to Germany. But there has not been any discussion about her involvement in political matters.
Considering the recent attack against Navalny, and the fact that Russian opposition figures have been forced into exile or murdered – how will Navalny continue to operate when he is freed?
I am sure that he will be free quite soon, sooner than many are expecting. I have no evidence for this, it is my gut feeling. He has so far managed to apply increasing pressure in the Kremlin, and I’m pretty sure he will continue to grow our movement, to attack Putin’s political structure, and present our vision of Russia’s future. We have managed to grow our support base. Ten years ago we had maybe one 100,000 supporters, now 30 million people are following us.
Given that Putin has modified the constitution, making it possible for him to stay in power until 2036, how are you going to weaken Putin’s grip on power?
Putin decided that he wants to stay in power forever a decade ago. This became clear to us when he announced in 2011 that he was going to run for president. What happened in 2020 was a constitutional quasi-referendum that was just a rubber-stamping of a decision taken many years ago. But he has many intentions that have not succeeded. Putin intended to kill Navalny in August 2020. He intended to bring Russia in the top five economies. As we become larger and stronger, the probability that Putin will succeed decreases. We have to be patient. We always understood that it was going to be a long run.