De­fi­ant Putin critic to hold ‘il­le­gal’ Moscow rally

Author­i­ties pre­emp­tively ban anti-cor­rup­tion protests planned in the cap­i­tal and dozens of other cities across Rus­sia

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY DAVID FILIPOV david.filipov@wash­post.com

moscow — When po­lice break up your meet­ing be­cause of a false bomb threat, that could be just bad luck. When some­one glues your of­fice door shut, that could be just a mis­un­der­stand­ing about the rent. And when a stranger comes up to you in the street and dumps green guck all over your face, that could be just a ran­dom act of hooli­gan­ism.

When this kind of thing hap­pens to you ev­ery day, that means you’re Alexei Navalny, Rus­sia’s most prom­i­nent anti-cor­rup­tion cru­sader and a de­clared can­di­date for next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — the mother of all up­hill bat­tles, given that your likely op­po­nent is Vladimir Putin. And if you’re Alexei Navalny, there’s a good chance you’re go­ing to wake up Mon­day in jail.

Author­i­ties have pre­emp­tively banned a rally Navalny has or­ga­nized for cen­tral Moscow on Sun­day, as well as oth­ers planned across Rus­sia. The demon­stra­tions were called to protest what he claims is ram­pant cor­rup­tion in the Krem­lin. Putin’s spokesman has said that even urg­ing peo­ple to take part is il­le­gal.

And Alexan­der Gorovoi, a se­nior Rus­sian po­lice of­fi­cial, warned Fri­day that author­i­ties will “bear no re­spon­si­bil­ity for any pos­si­ble neg­a­tive con­se­quences” for peo­ple who do show up. That could mean that if some­thing is started by pro-gov­ern­ment ac­tivists who rou­tinely in­ter­fere with Navalny’s cam­paign stops, of­fi­cers might stand aside and let it hap­pen.

Navalny, who has been ar­rested sev­eral times over the years, said the rally will go on.

“The Krem­lin sees us as their en­emy, but what should I do?” he said Thurs­day in his Moscow head­quar­ters. “I’m not go­ing away. I live here. I’m go­ing to live here.”

What Navalny has done to pro­voke of­fi­cial en­mity is is­sue fre­quent state­ments al­leg­ing in­stances of top Krem­lin of­fi­cials amass­ing huge for­tunes. Most re­cently, he re­leased a re­port and a 50-minute video de­tail­ing al­le­ga­tions that Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev has fun­neled more than $1 bil­lion in bribes through com­pa­nies and char­i­ties run by his as­so­ciates to ac­quire vine­yards, lux­ury yachts and op­u­lent man­sions.

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has barely ac­knowl­edged those ac­cu­sa­tions. One law­maker in the State Duma, a com­mu­nist, asked for an in­quiry into Navalny’s re­port. Oth­er­wise, the only pal­pa­ble re­ac­tion has been that when the ac­tivist ap­pears in pub­lic, eggs are tossed in his face, ac­tivists from the pro-gov­ern­ment Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment shout down his speeches, and oc­ca­sion­ally he is doused with a green, Soviet-era top­i­cal an­ti­sep­tic known as ze­ly­onka.

But that is shap­ing up to change Sun­day when Navalny and his sup­port­ers — he an­tic­i­pates tens of thou­sands — plan to chal­lenge the bans on their ral­lies in Moscow and across the coun­try.

In an in­ter­view Thurs­day, dur­ing a rare stop in Moscow, Navalny ar­gued that stag­ing the protests is worth­while, de­spite the like­li­hood that he will be ar­rested, be­cause it will sig­nal the breadth of the sup­port for his mes­sage — that Rus­sia needs to rid it­self of what he sees as a klep­to­cratic and au­thor­i­tar­ian regime. Peo­ple in 100 Rus­sian cities have in­di­cated they will turn out Sun­day, he said, and more than 10 mil­lion peo­ple have watched the YouTube video about Medvedev.

“I know that I rep­re­sent mil­lions of peo­ple. I know that my po­si­tions are sup­ported by the peo­ple, and if it were an hon­est elec­tion, I’d win,” he said, not­ing that he is de­nied ac­cess to staterun tele­vi­sion cov­er­age as well as the right to le­gal assem­bly.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dis­missed the idea of an of­fi­cial cam­paign against Navalny.

“This is­sue has noth­ing to do with us or our agenda,” he said in a text mes­sage, re­fer­ring to Navalny’s can­di­dacy and per­cep­tions of ha­rass­ment.

Tech­ni­cally, Navalny is barred from run­ning for pres­i­dent be­cause of a Fe­bru­ary con­vic­tion and a five-year sus­pended sen­tence in an em­bez­zle­ment case. The ver­dict echoed the one re­turned in a 2013 trial on the same charges and over­turned after the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights de­clared it “prej­u­di­cial,” say­ing that Navalny and his code­fen­dant were de­nied the right to a fair trial.

Even if Navalny were al­lowed to run, he would be a de­cided un­der­dog to Putin, who has en­joyed an ap­proval rat­ing above 80 per­cent for the past three years. Lev Gud­kov, di­rec­tor of the Moscow-based Le­vada Cen­ter, which tracks Putin’s rat­ing, said in a re­cent in­ter­view that Navalny could prob­a­bly win about 15 per­cent.

That’s not much of a threat, ex­cept when you con­sider that Rus­sian Com­mu­nist Party leader Gen­nady Zyuganov and the ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist Vladimir Zhiri­novsky are likely to run, split­ting some­thing like 20 per­cent of the vote be­tween them, Gud­kov said.

Ac­cord­ing to Gud­kov and other an­a­lysts, the Krem­lin is thought to be look­ing for at least 70 per­cent of the vote as a val­i­da­tion of Putin’s con­tin­ued rule.

“The elec­tions will be more like a plebiscite of con­fi­dence in Putin,” said An­drei Kolesnikov, a se­nior as­so­ciate at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter, who sug­gested that any­thing more than 60 per­cent would be push­ing the up­per lim­its of Putin’s real elec­toral rat­ing.

Un­like the sup­port for Zyuganov, Zhiri­novsky and the prob­a­ble lib­eral can­di­date, Grig­ory Yavlin­sky, who have all been run­ning for pres­i­dent since the mid1990s, the wave of po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity that Navalny is cre­at­ing “makes him more of a danger for the Krem­lin,” Kolesnikov said.

Be­ing a threat to the es­tab­lish­ment has been a hazardous pro­fes­sion in Rus­sia; Ukrainian of­fi­cials called the shoot­ing of a Putin critic, De­nis Voro­nenkov, in Ukraine on Thurs­day “state ter­ror­ism.” In Rus­sia, op­po­si­tion leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in 2015 out­side the walls of the Krem­lin, one of a list of prom­i­nent crit­ics who died sud­denly.

The Krem­lin has strongly de­nied in­volve­ment in any of those deaths.

Navalny says he un­der­stands the danger of his po­si­tion. He said he used to have a body­guard but de­cided there was no point — if some­one pow­er­ful wanted him dead, a body­guard wouldn’t be enough to save him.

“It doesn’t guar­an­tee your safety,” he said. “It’s an arms race I can’t win.”

PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: Rus­sian op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny, cen­ter, and his wife, Yu­lia, take part in a me­mo­rial march in Moscow in Fe­bru­ary. BE­LOW: Navalny takes a selfie with sup­port­ers after be­ing sprayed with the green, Soviet-era top­i­cal an­ti­sep­tic, ze­ly­onka.

ALEXEI NAVALNY VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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