For years an anti-corruption activist and outspoken opponent of the Russian government, Alexei Navalny was disqualified from the presidential race in December because of a conviction for embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the conviction was politically motivated, but it was upheld in Russian courts. Navalny was given a suspended five-year sentence.
Accused by Putin of being Washington's pick for president, Navalny has long predicted that Russian authorities will resort to widespread fraud to deliver a Putin landslide and has spoken of organizing post-election protests of the kind that roiled Russia after Putin's last election victory in 2012.
In a Thursday phone interview, VOA's Danila Galperovich asked Navalny how he and his supporters plan to monitor and protest this weekend's election, which he calls illegitimate. The following translated excerpt has been edited for brevity and concision. The full-length Russian language interview is available here.
VOA: How are you going to observe the elections? We know that the Central Election Committee rejected accreditation of your observers, but you continue to call for observation. How are you going to do it?
Navalny: The main thing that we have done now: we created the largest network of observers in the history of Russia. We called out to the masses, called for all our volunteers. More than 60,000 people enrolled, 18 percent of them minors, which, by the way, we are very proud of. But we will offer them a different job—to monitor streaming public access video footage of individual polling stations that anyone in Russia can access online. Given that, of course, we do not expect that all enrolled will come out to actually observe. Somewhere around 25,000 to 26,000 people will be actively monitoring polling stations in the districts. And, most importantly, for the first time we will make at least 20 percent coverage on these "zones of regional anomalies"—the North Caucasus, Mordovia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan [regions that traditionally produce extremely high voter turnout and equally high results for pro-Kremlin incumbents]. We are trying to do this, and we will do it, but we can already see that absolutely unprecedented measures are being taken to destroy our network: people are being arrested every day, they are withdrawing our accreditation, closing our headquarters. Another wave of arrests is in motion. And it is connected, of course, with our supervision of polls.
VOA: Why do the authorities resist your observation so strongly? If, as you say, they are trying to make the elections look free and fair?
Navalny: The authorities, of course, know that their candidate will "win"—and he will indeed "win"—but they are no longer interested in his mere victory. They are interested in the recognition of elections and that ... at least as many people as in 2012, come out to the polls. They are interested in turnout. They are faced with the fact that people do not want to voluntarily go to these elections under the influence of our boycott, or under the influence of the obvious fact that there is no competition, and that the result of the election is predetermined. For them, the only way to increase this turnout is to falsify it. Take, for example, the Kemerovo region. Last time it showed an 87 percent turnout. But if we put observers there, the turnout will immediately fall by 30- to 40-percent, and we can prove that the 87 percent is fake. And even without any boycott, simply just through observation, it will be obvious that the turnout has fallen. And [the Kremlin] cannot allow it—neither Putin nor the regional administrations. That is why they are fighting us so hard.
VOA: Your critics say that boycott and observation are incompatible. You have already explained the observation, can you please explain the logic of the boycott? Why, in your opinion, is this the right step?
Navalny: We do not recognize these elections as elections, but consider them a fake procedure. Because it is important not only to vote, it is important to influence politics—the opportunity to influence power, to express one's opinion. Putin, realizing that he can achieve an overwhelming result only if he does not allow real competitors, envisioned all these scenarios and picked up the politicians under his control. We are faced with a construct in which they, the authorities, look into the eyes of the public and say: "You know, we will not allow you to choose your own people's representatives. We offered you some people, you can vote for them." Moreover, those whom they picked up, whatever I think about them, they did not even do anything. They did not campaign. Many of them, in general, found out what is going on two months before the election. So it's fake, it's a falsification, and it's pointless to participate in the construct that from the get-go foresees Putin's targeted "70/70" percent result. [As Washington Post contributor Christopher Jarmas reported in December: "Last year, the Kremlin’s top political technologists established a '70 at 70' objective for Putin’s reelection in March 2018—70 percent of the vote with 70 percent turnout."]
VOA: It is known that the European pro-Kremlin politicians come to Russia as observers at the invitation of the State Duma. Their approval of these elections and their confirmation of the legitimacy of the favored candidate, Putin, is to be expected. How, when taking into account their connection with the Russian authorities, will the rest of the world treat such confirmation of the legitimacy of the winner?
Navalny: All those so-called European observers invited by the Duma: they are "observers" in the sense that other presidential candidates are “rivals” to Putin. Of course, this is an absolute fake. It's ridiculous and unpleasant to look at how Putin corrupted and turned into his puppets a significant part of the European establishment. Even if we are talking about representatives of marginal parties, they nonetheless represent the European political establishment. As for legitimacy: it is not measured by any agreements or by the presence of international observers. This is a generally the populist mindset. Our task in this campaign is that as many people as possible understand that these are not elections and do not recognize them as such. That they consciously declare: "We will not go there." And that's how we fight it.
This story originated in VOA's Russian Service.