After one suspected chemical poisoning, two arrests, 40 days in jail and multiple police raids on his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) offices nationwide, it's safe to say Russia's most prominent opposition figure has had a rough year.
But for Alexei Navalny, 2019 wasn't without at least one small victory. His calls for mass demonstrations over the exclusion of opposition candidates from local Moscow elections sparked the largest sustained protest movement in years, prompting state investigators to launch a money-laundering probe and label his group a "foreign agent," a move that he and others call part of a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to stifle growing dissent.
Despite house-to-house searches for FBK staffers, asset seizures and frozen bank accounts, the well-known blogger and activist says he also maintained a regular jogging routine while preparing new investigative exposes on alleged corruption that fuels the excessively lavish lifestyles at the highest echelons of Russian officialdom.
Navalny recently sat down with VOA's Russian Service to reflect on 2019, the state of the American and Russian political systems, and accusations that he's been needlessly hard on Moscow banker Andrei Kostin, one of Russia's most powerful civilians.
Just hours after this interview was conducted, Russian officials again raided FBK's Moscow headquarters using power tools to gain entry before dragging Navalny out by force and confiscating computer equipment. The latest raid came one day after police broke into Ruslan Shaveddinov's Moscow flat, forcibly conscripting the 23-year-old FBK project manager to serve at a remote military base in the Arctic, a move Navalny has since called tantamount to kidnapping.
The following has been edited for brevity.
QUESTION: How serious are FBK's financial losses as a result of these raids, and in what other ways did Russian authorities try to interfere with your work this year?
ALEXEI NAVALNY: In order to impede, complicate, and paralyze the foundation's work, a wide range of tools are used. First, it's just non-stop "searches," which are in fact planned confiscations of computers, phones, flash drives — any data-processing electronics of FBK employees, staff, their relatives, neighbors, sometimes even random people. Second, it's the freezing of accounts, such that people can't, for example, pay or receive a salary. All accounts and cards are blocked, even for child care and survivor benefits. And then there's the recently launched criminal case, which allows [officials] to call in anyone in for questioning at any time, along with unending efforts to nightmare and harass people through ostensibly legal actions. And while our people are quite resilient, the pressure strongly affects their relatives.
As for finances, we now have several million rubles on the account blocked. The question is not even what the financial losses are, but that we're prevented from receiving cash inflows. ... After the last [election] campaign for the Moscow City Duma, there were quite a lot of [donations], so the authorities are simply trying to block this cash flow, and the campaign to designate us as "foreign agents" means all of FBK's monetary assets were declared "criminal."
Q: Which events of 2019 were most significant to you?
NAVALNY: Undoubtedly the Moscow City Duma elections. Initially, we didn't think it would have any great national political significance, but the actions of the authorities, which were extraordinary in their stupidity, severity and senselessness, caused these events to resonate nationally. We received, on the one hand, new independent [Moscow City Duma] deputies, and, on the other hand, a huge number of people [were blocked from voting, which only made more people sympathetic to our cause]. So we got new political prisoners, new political stars. ... In this sense, the Moscow City Duma elections were the main event.
Q: You do what many would call the kind of high-quality investigative journalism, which, in the West, might topple an entire government. Yet your exposes of government corruption aren't compelling most Russians to protest. Why?
NAVALNY: This is indeed a cause of frustration on our part. We grasp perfectly well the quality our investigations, and we see many examples where exposes of less impact trigger government resignations and parliamentary crises in other countries. But in Russia this doesn't have major consequences due to the general political situation. And it's not a purely Russian phenomenon — we see similar things in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, any number of other authoritarian countries with staggering levels of corruption. That's where we also see this unfortunate, conditioned familiarity with corruption: the population already understands the elite stole everything, and the whole country exists only for the enrichment of this elite. And then of course there's censorship and intimidation. Therefore, we don't believe that the population is indifferent to our investigations — they know about them, but they're afraid of the state aggression toward those who choose to protest.
Q: You don't suppose that since quite a lot of people are now connected with state structures in Russia, and because they have families to feed, that corruption schemes have now become the new normal for a significant part of the populace? That the fight against corruption is a threat to a broad class of people?
NAVALNY: That's a good question. Does, say, the deputy head of the consumer market department of the city of Kostroma feel himself a direct part of Putin's "power vertical"? In fact, the vast majority of officials are not corrupt, if only because corruption isn't as lucrative in lower-level bureaucracies, [whereas theft of natural resource commodities such as oil and gas] is basically limited to maybe a thousand or so families with direct ties to Vladimir Putin at the highest level of his administration. But yes, in a certain sense, the system is built in such a way — and the belief systems of individuals within the system are built in such a way — that you live a very poor but stable life within the system. And of course you receive some informal privileges by being inside of it, such that your rational choice is to defend it rather than try to change it for the better.
Q: Your recent expose showed that Andrei Kostin, president and chairman of Russia's state-owned VTB bank, gave millions of dollars in gifts, including property, a private jet and a yacht, to his purported romantic partner, Russian state TV presenter Nailya Asker-Zade. Some commentators then accused you of prying into the personal affairs of private citizens as opposed to state officials. How do you feel about such accusations?
NAVALNY: Personal life is peoples' relationships. We are not interested in the relationships, love, passions and dramas that occur in the families of Kostin, Asker-Zade or anyone, not even Putin. However, when it comes to colossal spending from a state bank, it's already about corruption, not about personal relationships. And if a state banker spends literally tens of millions of dollars on his mistress, providing her with a standard of living on par with Arab sheikhs, that's already far, far beyond the limits of a private, personal affair. We try, as far as possible, not to condemn or evaluate Kostin from the point of view of public morality or "family values," but we certainly reserve the right to discuss his morals from the point of view of corruption, from the point of view of lifestyle, from the point of view of expenditures.
Q: There's the impression that you now regularly visit the United States, where your daughter studies. What's your impression of American political life?
NAVALNY: Unfortunately, I don't visit so often. I took my daughter to the university and went to shoot a story about Nailya Asker-Zade's plaque on a bench in New York City's Central Park, [which she had engraved with a declaration of her love for Kostin]. My feelings are unambiguous and probably align with those of many people, including most Americans: the country is split, the political class is split. Everyone on the left is [feeling] a kind of frustration, demoralization and rage, while those on the right are probably also furious, frustrated and demoralized, because it's not clear what to do about it or where it's all headed. It's still not very clear, for example, why the newspapers consistently reported [that Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead in the race, and then Trump won]. This is a very interesting but difficult time for Americans. But overall, even though I see a lot of exasperated people, I do think checks-and-balances generally works. Nothing so terrible is happening to America. Democracy works.
Q: Can Western countries somehow influence Russia's behavior in terms of corruption and human rights? What mechanisms are effective?
NAVALNY: I think we already understand empirically that, unfortunately, they can't influence anything, and they don't really want to. There's always some fictitious geostrategic interests or, perhaps, short-term political interests, some ideas about "peacekeeping missions," etc ... that simply prevent us from taking steps that are long overdue. Western countries need to protect not Russian citizens but themselves from the secondary effects Russian corruption by implementing their own laws. But this isn't happening. We repeatedly see that, despite the sanctions, despite the fact that there is a lot of talk on this subject, the entire Putin elite feels completely at ease. We haven't seen any real examples of asset freezes or seizures. On the contrary, we see people under sanctions traveling quite freely and continuing to buy up properties and assets only to register them to their children. And regulators, including American ones, pretend not to notice. … I am completely pessimistic about the role of the West in the fight against corruption in Russia.
Q: What are your political plans? The much discussed 2024 [presidential election] is still more than 4 years away; what are you going to do?
NAVALNY: It's still a long time until 2024, but we don't plan our activities from election to election. Elections take place constantly, and we're actively engaged in them. We also have the anti-corruption foundation, so we're engaged in the investigations, and we'll continue to build a nationwide system combating censorship through YouTube channels and blogs. We have a system of more than 40 headquarters, which now face the main task of learning how to survive under new conditions, in which [the state] is trying to paralyze our entire structure and funding with constant raids. We'll continue what we are doing, and we'll reinvent ourselves so that we can do it even more effectively in the new environment. And we'll try to expand. We have a lot of work to do.
Q: Are you going to continue trying to register a political party? You've been doing this for a long time, but you keep getting rejected.
NAVALNY: As we've stated many times, this is our right. Court cases on this issue have been going on for many years, and we are constantly making new attempts to register. We'll always do it. At the same time, of course, we're well aware that the Kremlin simply can't afford to register our party, because then it's unclear what they will do with it in the elections. But it's our right, and we'll continue to defend it.