Putin's Nemesis Speaks: The Alexei Navalny Interview

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."

A pro-government march in Moscow
A pro-government march in Moscow
Benoît Vitkine

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.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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