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Tags: putin | kremlin | navalny

Putin Foe: His Rule Will Crumble

Thursday, 30 October 2014 07:57 AM EDT

As President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating with Russians returns to a record, the man who would oust him from the Kremlin sits isolated at home under house arrest. Alexey Navalny remains convinced that he can bring about the downfall of Russia’s “authoritarian” ruler.

“The regime will devour itself, destroy itself, we just have to make that moment come sooner,” Navalny, 38, said in an interview in his three-room apartment on the edge of Moscow. “Any authoritarian regime is a colossus on feet of clay.”

The lawyer and anti-corruption activist, who led the biggest street protests of Putin’s almost 15-year rule in 2011-2012, has been kept out of the public eye under house arrest since February.

“Putin is systematically stifling democratic freedoms, controlling the Internet, intensifying criminal persecution of opposition leaders,” Navalny said. “In this sense he is building a totalitarian system out of an authoritarian one.”

After a months-long standoff with the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine, though, public support for Putin in opinion polls has soared. His ratings have risen even as sanctions have pushed Russia to the brink of recession, the ruble has plummeted to a record low and the price of oil, the country’s main export earner, has slumped.

The president’s popularity rose to 88 percent in October, a survey of 1,630 Russians by the Moscow-based Levada Center showed yesterday, matching his peak in September 2008.

New Wave

Navalny, who finished second with 27 percent in Moscow mayoral elections in September 2013 and almost forced a run-off against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin, predicts a fresh wave of opposition discontent after parliamentary elections in 2016.

Barred from using the Internet or phone under the terms of his confinement, Navalny must wear an electronic bracelet on his leg that alerts the authorities if he steps out of the door of his 75-square-meter (800-square-feet) apartment.

He and his brother Oleg are on trial for allegedly defrauding the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, one of several criminal cases against him and his supporters.

Navalny leaves home once a week to attend hearings and his followers have begun a petition asking Yves Rocher to request the case be dropped. The company said by e-mail that it had filed a complaint to protect its interests and to gain access to case materials concerning the suspected fraud against it.

Online Popularity

Navalny was given a suspended sentence in a separate and controversial embezzlement case last year, a conviction that could bar him from being a candidate in the next presidential election in 2018. The aim of the authorities is to reduce him to obscurity, he says, while avoiding making him a martyr by putting him in prison.

Still, Navalny’s website -- on which his supporters can post his commentaries -- attracts 1.4 million readers a month, compared with 2 million for his blog, which was banned for extremism in March and was the most popular in Russia. His Twitter account has 792,000 followers.

His anti-corruption fund, which investigates pro-government politicians as well as state companies, is under pressure too, with six out of 20 employees facing criminal cases. Its fundraising chief, Vladimir Ashurkov, fled to the U.K. earlier this year and has requested political asylum.

Khodorkovsky Project

Navalny says he’s collaborating with another prominent Putin opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time oil tycoon who was pardoned by the president in December and freed after a decade in prison. They announced a joint project yesterday to provide 50 awards of as much as 100,000 rubles ($2,300) each to help opponents of the regime who are in prison or under house arrest, and their families.

Khodorkovsky, who lives in exile in Switzerland, called on supporters last month to help influence the 2016 parliamentary elections as he restarted his Open Russia movement dedicated to promoting civil society.

Describing Khodorkovsky as an “ally” that he’s in contact with indirectly by e-mail, Navalny said the former oligarch is a danger to Putin “because he has money.”

Khodorkovsky said in September that he’s ready to lead Russia in a crisis situation, adding that Putin’s regime may last 20 more years or end in as few as two if he makes more mistakes. Putin is eligible to run for another six-year term as president in 2018.

Clock Ticking

Navalny believes Putin won’t survive for more than a few years, pointing to the worsening budget situation that could force the government to cut social spending and the disguised hostility of the business and political elite in Russia to Putin’s policies in Ukraine.

“Like any elite in any authoritarian country, they will betray Putin at the first opportunity,” Navalny said. “As soon as they understand that he is weakening, they will betray him immediately. He created problems for Rotenberg and Timchenko too.”

Gennady Timchenko and brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, all billionaire allies of Putin, were sanctioned by the U.S. in March after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Arkady Rotenberg was also blacklisted by the European Union in July. Timchenko in an interview with the Tass news service in August said that he was “suffering” for the president and his policies, even if he supports them, and complained that he had become virtually subject to a travel ban because he couldn’t risk U.S. arrest by going to Europe.

‘Fed Up’

Navalny, who answered the door to his apartment barefoot wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, says he’s “very fed up” with his own confinement, though it was eased in August to allow anyone not connected to the Yves Rocher case to visit him. His only physical exercise comes from a treadmill in his lounge.

Still, he’s determined to pursue his campaign against Putin and says he’s ready to go to prison for his political beliefs. “I have my own view of how Russia should develop and I think many people share that view and I will fight for me and my team to take a leadership role,” he said.

“Putin is following a well-trodden path. He’s opened a history book and read what an authoritarian leader must do who wants to rule until his death and die in his bed.”

Navalny said the annexation of Crimea in March was illegal but can’t be reversed now. The problem he faces, according to Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, is that Putin’s action not only boosted his own popularity by 20 points, but also reduced the appeal to the public of Navalny’s criticisms of corruption.

“The authorities have not only physically isolated Navalny, they’ve changed the focus of public attention,” Petrov said by phone. “In the medium to long-term, Navalny may have a role to play but for now Putin has managed to drive him into a corner.”


© Copyright 2023 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

As President Vladimir Putin's approval rating with Russians returns to a record, the man who would oust him from the Kremlin sits isolated at home under house arrest. Alexey Navalny remains convinced that he can bring about the downfall of Russia's "authoritarian"...
putin, kremlin, navalny
Thursday, 30 October 2014 07:57 AM
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