Interview Olivier Védrine on the Russian opposition

Navalny’s struggle: ‘Time will come for a change in Russia’

The anti-corruption activist and main opponent to Vladimir Putin's regime is back from Berlin, where he was cured after being poisoned in Russia, and has called his supporters to demonstrate this Saturday. Researcher and opposition activist Olivier Védrine, analyses the condition for a possible political change in the country.

Published on 23 January 2021 at 10:20

Voxeurop: Alexei Navalny knew he was going to be arrested the moment he landed in Russia. Does one need to be in Russia to exert his job as an opponent to Vladimir Putin, even in prison, rather than in exile?

Olivier Védrine: For Navalny, exile means political death, he must be at the center of his troops in Russia. After surviving a poisoning assassination attempt that most European governments attribute to the Russian secret services, he could have stayed in Germany, where he received treatment, with his wife and two children. Moscow did everything to urge him to do so, increasing threats against him if he returned. He has the right to go home. Procedures have been devised to send him to detention outside Moscow. Russian power does not respect any rights but likes to pretend to be doing so - an old habit. It’s a typical heritage of the Soviet period with the process of the Stalinist trials. The government will prove that you are guilty with a fake trial; everything is organised as a big theatre with the support of the propaganda.

The investigation by Bellingcat and Alexei Navalny on his poisoning.

It looks like the Russian judiciary system is completely opaque and at the Kremlin's service. How is that possible, and how opponents can deal with that to have their rights asserted in court?

This repression against dissidents results in judicial harassment, arbitrary imprisonment, and exile, even the assassination of personalities. In most cases, the investigations of the Russian justice do not make it possible to designate the real sponsors of these murders. That is why Navalny was courageous when he decided to come back to Russia. The only way for him to have justice is to have a large media impact and to mobilise people in the streets. Another example, when an opponent is in jail all articles written about him help him not to have bad treatments and to be released and avoid a fake trial. The worst for an opponent is the silence of the media.

It seems that if Navalny wanted to take the risk of being jailed again, it was because he believes he is indispensable to the opposition's cause. Is it the case? You have been involved for a long time now in the democratic opposition in Russia; what is the state of the current opposition to Putin and his party? 

Navalny works from prison. Incarcerated since his incredible return to Russia, he  counter-attacked on 19 January with the dissemination of a vast anti-corruption investigation targeting President Vladimir Poutine and his alleged true "palace" near Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea, illustrated by a nearly two-hour video that already has 42 million views on YouTube in 48 hours. The video comes with a call to the Russians to demonstrate against the government on Saturday, reiterating the invitation to "take to the streets'' Navalny and his team made the day before. This is the power of Navalny, this is what scares Vladimir Putin. Navalny is a powerful symbol within the Russian opposition, a Russian opposition persecuted by the government but still alive.

Alexei Navalny's investigation on Vladimir Putin's alleged resort on the Black Sea, released on 19 January.

There are several other prominent figures, like exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chess champion Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasianov, former deputies Ilya Ponomarev and Dmitry Gudkov, leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov, Yekaterinburg mayor Evgeniy Roizman and a few others. Western politicians have to take into consideration all those figures of the Russian opposition and not only one person. The political change in Russia will also help a new generation of opponents and leaders to appear, young people, more radical, who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union or at the end of the Soviet Union, so without link with the old system.

In the protests in Russia, you can see a lot of young people like students who don't want to continue to live under Putin’s regime. Some of them only lived under the period of the Putin regime, more than 20 years now… Like all young people, they will be more radical and more ready to change the system, In this case also, the diaspora will help a lot with all those young Russians who did or are doing their studies abroad.

How is it that, seen from the West, it seems that Russians still prefer an authoritarian and corrupted regime that guarantees stability (though not yet prosperity) than risking a – relatively – more chaotic liberal democracy? What role does the media have in this? 

Almost all the media, all the statistics about the economy, about social issues and about the Covid-19 pandemic are controlled by the government. Like during the Stalin period,  fear is controlling the people. But across Europe and the West in the cozy cafés and bistrots once again, as a hundred years ago, one can hear Russian political exiles speaking familiar words – “revolutsia”, “Putin”, “reforma”, “Ukraina”… They have flooded Western cities after their president decided to go West and annexed Crimea. 

Analysts estimate that between 1.5 and 2 million of the most educated and dynamic Russians left their country after Putin had started the war in Ukraine in 2014. Most of them were never politically active. Nevertheless, they found it hard to live in a country that experiences a steep conservative turn and an extended economic crisis. Most of them are now settled in their new countries, others are planning to return. As some hundred years ago, the question of coordination and on effectively using the potential of the Russian-speaking diaspora became a crucial factor of future success.

Do Western politicians, NGOs and activists' protests have any effect on Russian public opinion and leadership? What would be the most effective way to support them then?

We saw many times how western institutions failed or acted ineffectively, trying to facilitate change within Russia. It is not their job, and it should be left to Russians themselves. But to work with this Russian-speaking diaspora in the European and Western territories from France to Ukraine, from Spain to Estonia and to the USA, is both legal and logical.Very long time ancient thinker Archimedes said: “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world”. We have a place to stand. We have things to stand for which are common between Russians and other Europeans. We can build the lever – together!

Is there any hope for a democratic transition in Russia in the short/medium term? If not, why?

The time for a change will come. Many segments of the society are demonstrating against the Kremlin: Students, pupils and young workers are the most visible, but also truck drivers, NGOs, veterans, pensioners, health, and public education workers… Remember last year the protests in Khabarovsk and the support for the protests in Belarus. Now, you can see in Belarus the many protesters who are supporting a free Russia.

The goal of the Russian opposition is to free the civil society and counter the government, and stop the country’s collapse. The construction of a democratic Russia, through the Rule of Law, is the only answer. 

Just before the Russian revolution of 1917 Lenin was not expecting a revolution for some years. We know what happened. Everything is possible in Russia.

Olivier Védrine is a director at New Europeans and the Chief editor of Russian Monitor.

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