The anti-corruption activist, under house arrest in Moscow, says that Putin is pursuing war in Ukraine to consolidate his power and fulfill his ambition to be Russia's "president for life."
Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and blogger in the fight against corruption, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's principal opponent. On Dec. 30, 2014, a Moscow court sentenced him to a three-and-a-half-year suspended prison sentence on charges of swindling the French company Yves Rocher. His brother Oleg received the same sentence, only it was not suspended, and he is now in jail. While he appeals, Navalny is under house arrest, a measure he consistently violates. On Jan. 15, he granted his first interview since the verdict, by phone, to a foreign media.
LE MONDE: What is your current situation?
ALEXEI NAVALNY: I’m in a rather strange situation, under house arrest but not really. The arrest is illegal, and I too have acted illegally by cutting my electronic bracelet. Policemen and plain clothes officers follow and watch me on a permanent basis, but I can leave my home. I’ve been living this kind of situation, of more or less intense police persecution, for three years now. This time it’s more difficult because my brother is in prison. But I’ve gotten used to it.
Can you communicate with your brother?
I got a letter from him. For an innocent man in prison he’s doing pretty well. By Russian standards, he’s being held in decent conditions. Oleg is not a political militant. His only fault is being my brother.
Oleg Navalny in Moscow's Butyrka jail — Photo: navalny4 via Instagram
Do you believe that your guilty verdict was decided by the Kremlin?
The case with Yves Rocher was fabricated. All the decisions taken by the judges depend on Vladimir Putin. A year ago I was condemned to five years' imprisonment in another matter, the Kirovles matter, and let go the next day. The judges don’t decide anything without Putin’s approval. My activities hurt Russian power and Putin personally. In Russia, you’re allowed to talk about democracy, liberty, general concepts. I talk about corruption; I name names. I investigate matters that involve Putin, his family, his entourage. That’s forbidden. So that makes me an enemy of the state.
You are Putin's main opponent. And yet after your condemnation only a few thousand people demonstrated. Why?
First of all there are the Kremlin’s maneuvers. The fact that they abruptly moved up announcing the verdict to the eve of the New Year celebrations. Sending my brother to prison but not me. But that’s not the crux of it. The situation in Russia now is very different from what it was a year ago. There’s huge pressure on society. A year ago, Putin was only a thief — now he’s a murderer. He’s started a war; people are scared.
During this past year would you say that Putin has gotten stronger or weaker?
On the international scene, weaker, no doubt about it. In Russia, it’s different. Precisely because he felt his power waning he started a war, fanned anti-Western sentiment, ratcheted up propaganda … And a large part of public opinion went along with him. Among the elite, those close to him who are enriching themselves will support him to the end. The others, mainly in the business world, are only kept in check by fear. They’ll betray him the first chance they get.
Do you support the sanctions Western countries have imposed against your country?
The sanctions and more generally the bad economic situation are hurting the Russian people. But without them, the Russian army would be in Odessa. The sanctions also put pressure on Putin on the inside. They contribute to weakening him. Putin only has one ambition: die in his bed after having been president-for-life of Russia.
Alexei Navalny — Photo: Facebook page
So it would be naive to believe that the Kremlin could take part in a peaceful settlement of the war in Ukraine?
It can’t. It’s become a question of political survival for Putin. He can’t let Ukraine succeed. That would be much too dangerous an example for the Russians and the other countries in the region.
You have declared that Crimea de facto belongs to Russia.
The annexation of Crimea was an unjust and illegal act. But it was also stupid and not in the interests of Russia. Ukraine has become hostile to Russia, and the other countries in the region look at us with mistrust. What I also said is that Crimea will not become a part of Ukraine again for a long time. I understand that the Ukrainians didn’t like that but it’s a realistic position.
You’ve often been described as a nationalist …
I have conservative positions on immigration. To be more precise, all I ask is that Russia introduce a system of visas with the central Asian countries. Does this make me a narrow-minded nationalist? I don’t think so.
Several Russian newspapers were warned not to publish caricatures of Muhammad and not to print the front pages of Charlie Hebdo. What's your position?
I’m against censorship: I myself am the victim of it. My site is inaccessible in Russia. It was a bad decision to prevent the papers from publishing those caricatures. But it’s significant. At the same time as he is developing a nationalist rhetoric, Putin is plugging religious fundamentalism — orthodox mainly but also Muslim in Chechnya.