Previously published in Metro www.metro.lu
The task Alexey Navalny has set himself, exposing corruption in Russia, seems too big for one person. Russia is, after all, a country near the bottom of Transparency International's Corruptions Perceptions Index. But Russians are sick of corruption -- and this could topple Putin, Navalny says.
The outcome of the election was no surprise, and now Putin has been inaugurated. Is the game over for you and other protesters?
First of all, we shouldn't call it an election. It was a procedure in which Putin appointed himself as a kind of emperor of Russia. The so-called election was designed to have only this result: Putin elected president. So, nothing surprising and nothing shocking. It was essentially just a new signal that we should reinforce our work. Our main goal now is to force the government to call new elections. I'm totally sure that in a fair election Mr. Putin would be defeated.
Because among the people who were allowed to participate in this election he was definitely the most popular. But it's as if the guy who wanted to win the World Championships said, "I only want to play against that guy, that guy and that guy," and they're all old athletes. Of course I'm not going to say that he's not popular at all. But there are too many stories about corruption in his regime, and his personal corruption. That's ruining his popularity.
But Putin remains in charge. Is there anything else you can do at this point or will you wait until the next election in six years?
I'm sure there will be a new election much sooner than that. Since our protests started in December much more has changed in the political than during the past 10 years in Parliament. Now United Russia, which is essentially Mr. Putin's political tool, is losing its political influence very fast. And United Russia's unofficial name, the Party of Crooks as Thieves, is used more often than the party's official name. The only way for United Russia to win the majority in local elections is to fabricate the election.
Putin's spokesman has called protesters zeroes and you an extremist. What's your response?
The tide for the protest movement is changing. There's no organizer of the protests; it's just friends and families deciding on their own to do it. And the protests are changing. There were huge protests during the winter, but now they're dividing into smaller groups in different regions, including hunger strikes in several cities. It's a very dynamic protest. But when we discuss the influence of the protests, we shouldn't compare what we have now to what we had in December. We should compare what we have right now to what we had one year ago. One year ago a demonstration with 5,000 was a tremendous success, and now a demonstration with less than 10,000 people is a small one. People are protesting because they feel humiliated.
But is there a credible alternative to Putin?
That's exactly one of our problems. The situation in Russia is completely different from countries like Ukraine and Georgia. We don't have any leaders who we could turn to right now, no one to whom we could point and say, "we want him, not Mr. Putin." Obviously, this is the result of Putin's rule during the past decade. But we have a lot of new faces who could become political leaders. What we need is a kind of primaries. That would allow for more honest elections. We should declare primaries, and they should be open to everyone. That way the best candidates could be elected by the people and wouldn't have to be nominated by a political party.
Do you see yourself as a politician? A crusading lawyer? A concerned citizen
I see myself as a lawyer fighting corruption in state-controlled corporations. But of course I have to be a politician because I understand that you can't fight corruption efficiently without political involvement. It's a question of political will because the corrupt people sit in the prosecutor's offices too. How are corrupt prosecutors going to prosecute themselves? That's why I have to get political. Prosecuting bad guys by exposing their actions the most efficient way of reaching my goal, reducing corruption in our country.
But do ordinary Russians really care about corruption?
Corruption is the hottest issue in Russia right now. Yes, we had a period where corruption became commonplace. Everything was based on bribes, and bribes became a kind of social network. People always said that bribes are part of Russian culture, but I think that's complete nonsense. Everyone has been paying bribes because they had to. People understand that this system is both wrong and inefficient. Other countries have had a lot of experience with corruption, for example our neighbor Georgia. It used to be hopelessly corrupt. But it decided to fight corruption as has seen very good results. And there are a lot of other countries that have cleaned up corruption, for example Hong Kong and Singapore. If the leadership decides to fight corruption, you can do it. Putin and Medvedev have said they're going to fight corruption, but it was a failure. Why? Because they themselves surrounded themselves with corrupt people. How can you ever persuade a policeman not to accept bribes if every single day he reads about businessmen embezzling another billion dollars?
If Russia decided to clean up corruption, how many politicians would be left?
There are many honest politicians in Russia. They're not at the top level, because there's a kind of negative selection: if you're honest, you're not promoted. And you almost become a bad mayor or governor because you're not able to work in a corrupt system. But on the lower level there are many honest people, people who don't laugh when they hear words like ethics, transparency and conflict of interest. Russia is a country with a big population, and we have plenty of people who're ready to create a new system, without corruption. Our system can be changed if we have a political signal from the highest level to force people to give up corruption. Georgia did it.
Do you honestly think Putin will purge corruption? Or do you feel like Don Quixote, a man on a hopeless mission?
I don't think he's ready to fight corruption. It's one of the most efficient tools for running the country. That's why he doesn't do anything about corrupt officials, even people who're very publicly corrupt, people about whom you can read in every newspaper that they take bribes. But I don't feel like Don Quixote at all. It's a very rational position. Of course I understand that I can't prosecute these people right now, and I can't put them in jail because they're not going to jail themselves. But I'm completely sure that the day will come and the people who should be punished will be punished. And I feel that people support me, no matter how they feel about political views. They can tell right from wrong, and they simply want to get of corruption. In the past 10 years, while Putin was in power, Russia has lost $4 trillion in the sale of state-owned companies. It's an enormous amount of money. Where is it? In London, Miami and Swiss banks. Everyone notices that officials are some of the wealthiest people in Russia. Look who's flying in business class from Moscow to London every day. Officials! They have their families living in London, their children attending the best schools. It's very evident to everyone in Russia. Of course there's a lot of propaganda, and Mr. Putin is trying to convince everyone that he's the only man who can run the country and that chaos would follow if he were not in charge, but that's what all dictators in history have said.
Are you afraid that something will happen to you?
Of course I'm not afraid! I know that there's a danger, because there always is if you do something independent in Russia, and it's not a reason to quit my work. It's something that exists, but I can't control it, so I ignore it. And there are people who face much bigger dangers than me, for example people who fight corruption at the local level. I know it would be easy to put a couple of grams of heroin in my suitcase and arrest me, but the local activists face much worse dangers. So do independent journalists working in the Caucasus. They're the people who inspire me.
When you wake up in the morning, what do you tell yourself?
I understand that the people I'm fighting are much stronger. They're embezzling and laughing at me and other people who're trying to prevent them. But the knowledge that I'm right, and that I can help others through what I'm doing, motivates me and forces me to work harder.