Navalny vs. Putin

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Aleksei Navalny, the fiercest political opponent of Vladimir Putin, is in prison. He returned to Russia in January after recovering from a near-deadly poisoning in Siberia. After the police arrested him on charges that were widely seen as politically motivated, a wave of pro-Navalny protests swept the country.

For today’s newsletter, Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, catches us up on what’s going on in Russia. Our exchange has been edited for length.

Claire: Let’s start with the basics. Who is Aleksei Navalny, and why were there protests in Russia recently?

Anton: Navalny is Putin’s most prominent and best organized domestic critic. When Navalny tried to run for president in 2018, the Kremlin didn’t let him. But he opened offices nationwide and campaigned for people to boycott the election. And it’s that kind of organizing that really matters. He and his team produce YouTube videos that get millions of views. He can mobilize people. The question, now that Navalny is in prison, is whether he can continue to do that.

What’s the basis of Navalny’s opposition?

He says that Putin is a thief, that his party is corrupt and that regular Russians are suffering every day because of that: bad roads, crumbling hospitals. For Navalny, it’s all about fighting corruption and about creating a more fair and free society.

What’s the current situation?

Navalny is in prison, and his lawyers are saying his health is in decline. This past year also saw the advent of a new phase: The arrests and repression surrounding the Navalny protests were the most severe that Russia has seen under Putin.

When Putin took power in 2000, Russia was essentially a democracy. Putin has been trying to stifle dissent more and more aggressively, but he is far from stamping it out. Young people, for instance, now tend to get their news from the internet, rather than from state TV. They are opposing Putin in extraordinary numbers — only 31 percent want to see him remain president, according to one recent poll.

This month the Russian government said it was slowing access to Twitter. Why does that matter?

Putin built his image and his power by controlling TV — that has always been his biggest weapon — but the internet remains essentially free in Russia. This is an experiment to see what Putin can do to squash those remaining freedoms that Russians have.

Tell us about elections in Russia.

Elections are not free and fair in Russia. For example, the ruling party gets almost infinite access to TV airwaves, and the opposition gets almost none. But they’re not 100 percent rigged, either. And that’s the loophole that the Navalny people — and other Putin opponents — are trying to use. There have been opposition candidates on the ballot, because this illusion of democracy matters to Putin. The whole concept that Putin presents is that he is the president because the majority of Russians want him to be.

What’s next?

Navalny’s team has promised to organize another nationwide protest once 500,000 people sign up for it; they haven’t given a date. After that, the next big moment could be around the parliamentary elections in September. That’s when Putin opponents of all stripes will really try to organize opposition to the Kremlin. The opposition is going to find ways to keep the pressure on, and the Kremlin will find means of fighting back even harder.

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