‘We Are Gaining in Strength’: After Navalny’s Imprisonment, Russian Opposition Looks Ahead
Navalny has been detained before. The anti-corruption movement he started has only gained momentum, despite a big Kremlin crackdown.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny was sentenced by a Moscow court to two years and eight months in a penal colony. The court ruled that the opposition leader had violated his probation under a previous charge—one that he has long argued was politically motivated—while recuperating in Germany after being poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok last year.
Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations have long been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. He has previously been placed under house arrest and detained for short spells, but Tuesday’s ruling marks the first time he has received an extended prison sentence. The decision was a landmark moment for Russia and has been compared to the 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the country’s richest man, which heralded a sharp turn toward authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin.
On Friday, the Kremlin announced it would expel top diplomats from Sweden, Germany, and Poland for allegedly participating in the recent protests in support of Navalny—which is likely to cause another diplomatic rupture. Russian authorities consider the protests to have been illegal.
In Navalny’s absence, Russian opposition activists like Vladimir Ashurkov, a close ally and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which investigates abuses by high-level Russian officials, are hoping to carry out a longer-term campaign to unseat Putin.
“The numbers of supporters, people on our mailing list, people who come to mass protests, people who donate money to our cause, it’s all growing,” said Ashurkov, who sat down for an interview with Foreign Policy this week. “And that’s also a sign of discontent. So we are preparing, we are gaining in strength. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: What is the future of the Russian opposition now that Navalny has been imprisoned? Where do you see the movement going from here?
Vladimir Ashurkov: This is a pointless question without understanding what our strategies are and where we’re coming from. So let me start with that. The situation in Russia is such that the democratic forces—the opposition, as you call it—are not strong enough to take on the incumbent government authorities head on because all the administrative resources, all the legislative power, unlimited financial resources are in the hands of Putin and his cronies. The political field has been bulldozed for years. The latest crackdown and repression is a sign of how repressed the political environment is in Russia.
At the same time, the seemingly stable regime of Putin is not so stable, and it’s cracking in different parts. The discontent of people is growing. I’m talking about the general population, whose standards of living are either deteriorating or stagnating, as well as the business elite, who has seen the value of their assets decimated and access to international capital markets almost eliminated. So there are a lot of people who don’t like this system, and the number’s growing. And at some point it will transform. It will result in a political crisis. And we don’t know when. I think it’s realistic to expect that it’s going to happen within the next five years, but nobody knows. We don’t have a crystal ball.
So our strategy is to create a political force that will be strong enough at this point of political crisis. It’s likely that some sort of breath of fresh air will come into the political system. At that time, we’ll want to be strong, and we’ll want to be able to influence how Russia will be governed at the next stage of its development. So that’s our overall strategy.
The arrest of Alexey Navalny is tragic. It’s unlawful, but when he was thinking about returning to Russia, it was not unexpected. It was not 100 percent certain that he would be incarcerated, but that was a possible scenario. And that’s something that we discussed and planned for.
FP: You mentioned something interesting, that if there is a political crisis in the next five years, your organization would hope to be positioned in a way to make the most of that crisis.
VA: Right now, we cannot compete in the elections. We cannot bring a million people in the streets. So what we’re doing now is increasing our recognition, gathering supporters, making effective campaigning, doing anti-corruption investigations and other civil work. So that’s what we do and what we continue to do. And the numbers of supporters, people on our mailing list, people who come to mass protests, people who donate money to our cause, it’s all growing. And that’s also a sign of discontent. So we are preparing, we are gaining in strength. It’s not going to happen overnight.
FP: What are your plans for the next six months to a year? Do you have any more investigations planned or any plans for mass street protests?
VA: We have this tactic of “smart voting” that we used in several regional elections. [The smart voting strategy aims to funnel votes to opposition candidates most likely to defeat those from Putin’s United Russia party.] We’ll plan to use it in the parliamentary election in September. We understand that elections are not fair, but we’ll create a point of pressure for the authorities through elections because it’s a time of uncertainty. We’ll try to get a few or a few dozen of our independent candidates to the State Duma, to the parliament. And let’s see. Again, it’s all part of us getting stronger and stronger so that we can participate at the critical moment.
FP: How will Navalny’s sentencing impact the street protests?
VA: This is not the first time that Navalny was out of the picture. In 2014, he spent nearly a year under house arrest. Then, our organization was probably, I don’t know, 10 times smaller, and we survived. We are now much stronger. Navalny has much more visibility. The movement does not depend on one person. We have over 200 full-time employees. We have leaders who work in different areas. They may be less famous than Navalny, but they are recognized in the public sphere. So we have a long bench of senior people who are involved in political and civil work. And that’s how we see it. And, yes, Navalny was given a two-and-a-half-year sentence, but we know that that decision was not made in court. That decision was made in the Kremlin. And if the Kremlin is sufficiently pressured to, that they believe it’s in their interests to reverse their decision, they will find legal pretext in a day to let him go. So our objective is to put pressure domestically, internationally so that our friend, our colleague, is free.
FP: What’s your sense on how effective sanctions could be in terms of bringing about a fracturing within the Russian elite and causing them to turn on the Kremlin?
VA: There is no silver bullet. If it existed, it probably would already have been used. On the importance of sanctions, I see three things. One is it’s punishment for the crimes that have been committed by those people. Second, probably more important, is sanctions as a deterrent for other people involved in the system of political corruption. There are probably 5,000 or 10,000 people, the pillars of the regime, the senior officials, the business cronies, etc., that are the foundation. If they are removed, it will all crumble.
And if the top hundred people of this 5,000 would be sanctioned, I think the others will take notice because they are quite reliant on the West—they have assets here, property, their families reside here. They like to go to the Cote d’Azur and Forte dei Marmis of this world. So if sanctions are put in place, personal sanctions against people with something at stake—not at security service operatives who don’t have assets in the West and rarely go there, if ever, which was the case with the sanctions previously. Most of the sanctions were on names that are not really household names. We were talking about senior officials, we’re talking about the real oligarchs. So if those people are sanctioned, I think the rest of these people will be more restless. Let me put it this way, maybe they will not immediately jump under Navalny’s banners, but I think their desire for change will increase.
FP: Do you see the Russian opposition in the future potentially more focused on a campaign in exile than inside Russia?
VA: Again, if the situation changes, we change. Ninety percent of our activity goes on in Russia. We have a few people, like myself, who had to leave Russia to avoid prison, and we’re working from outside. So we have an integrated team. It’s now more or less seamless. There is no issue of exile or not exile. And I think it will always be like that. You cannot change what’s happening in Russia from the outside. It can only happen from inside.
FP: The Levada Center published a poll on Feb. 4 that asked respondents to name politicians whom they trust. Almost 30 percent named Putin, but only 5 percent named Navalny. Does Navalny’s popularity personally even matter anymore? And if it does, what do his supporters need to do to reach out to Russians who are skeptical of him?
VA: I’m really suspicious about polls in today’s Russia because people are afraid to speak up. There are also huge biases in that they call on landlines, which is mostly older people. So I don’t really see these as some sort of representative numbers. We see that the protest meetings, the mass protests, they attract tens of thousands of people in Moscow and over a hundred thousand throughout Russia. And Putin’s rallies, they have to bus people and pay them a fee for participating. You don’t see that in the numbers that you quoted.
FP: It sounds as if it’s going to be increasingly difficult to protest in the future with the uptick of arrests and talk of some lengthy prison sentences. How do you plan on rallying people through that?
VA: We don’t look at it like that. You see now as a very drastic point, and it is. But it’s not as if we haven’t lived through similar points before. In 2017, 2018, in these two years, we calculated that Navalny spent, I think, one-fifth of his time in detention. A lot of our people were imprisoned for administrative arrests, were beaten up, etc. So on one hand we see that the repression is increasing, but on the other hand, we see people’s support for our cause increasing. I see it in the mood of the protesters, in social media, in how celebrities who were silent before are now speaking up—that’s what gives us hope. And that’s what is a signal of the change that is inevitably going to come.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack