Stephen Sackur is in Moscow for a special edition of HARDtalk with Russia's most prominent opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
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Welcome to a special edition of Hardtalk from Moscow,
I'm Stephen Sackur.
For 17 years, one man has dominated the politics
of the Russian capital, Vladimir Putin.
Externally, he's projected Russian power from Ukraine to Syria
and internally, opposition has been repressed, intimidated and silenced.
But not altogether.
My guest today is the most prominent leader of Russia's
anti-Putin opposition, Alexey Navalny.
Now he has committed to fighting Putin in the 2018 presidential
election but will his defiance cost him dear?
Alexey Navalny, welcome to Hardtalk.
Thank you very much for having me here.
You have been involved in opposition politics of one form or another
for almost ten years, maybe more, and it just seems to me
that right now your position is perhaps more dispiriting,
more depressing than it's ever been before.
Would you agree?
Actually, ironically, I can call Vladimir Putin
as my godfather in politics.
Because when he came to power and the way he talks
and what he's saying, what he's doing, the laws he's
passing, tells me that Russia is done with a democracy
and I should do something.
I should join the opposition movement, but, you know,
I didn't find myself in a more depressing situation
For example, in 2008, the biggest rally, the biggest
meeting I participated in was maybe 100 people, maybe 200
and meeting with 1000 people was tremendously big.
But in 2011, 2012 we sought rallies with hundreds
of thousands of people, so I saw different times and it
doesn't bother me how many people know come onto the streets.
I enjoy doing the right thing.
But in a way you've just made my point for me.
You had a momentum between 2008 and 2011 -
You had a momentum between 2008 and 2011-2012, it did appear
you were building a real popular street movement but look at today.
Today more than 80% of Russians say they approve of President Putin
but also the international situation is changing and in particular
we are about to see a new US president who admires
Vladimir Putin, who says that Putin is smart,
who says he believes that he can't trust and wants to work with Putin.
-- can trust and wants to work with Putin.
That's your new reality.
Well, I have to remind you that, for example, in 2008,
everyone in the world admired Putin and Medvedev,
much bigger than now.
Do you remember the so-called reset strategy declared
by the Obama administration?
They were just nice friends with Mr Putin,
they are kissing each other etc, etc.
Yes, we have momentum...
Let's be specific, Donald Trump says and this is a tweet from just
the other day when he says, "We should be ready to
trust Vladimir Putin."
What is your feeling?
Well, it sounds disappointing for me and, you know, it's bothering me.
I have no idea why Mr Trump is so kind to Mr Putin
because their views on politics and particular issues,
they 100% differ.
From migration to the economy, they are 100% different politicians.
But they like each other and it's strange,
but I would say that international relationships between the Kremlin
and foreign countries, that wasn't the hot issue
inside of Russia.
So, well, someone is good for Putin, someone is bad,
it doesn't matter to me.
But do you in any sense feel betrayed by an incoming US president
who says that he regards working closely with Putin as
being a great asset.
You know, because in a sense that works against everything
you are trying to achieve, you are trying to tell
the Russian people that as long as Putin has power,
Russia is going to be facing sanctions, Russia
is going to be isolated, Russia has no international future and yet,
Trump's message is very different.
I don't like it and I could say honestly that I'm irritated
by this, annoyed by this, but I don't feel betrayed.
I can tell you about moments when I felt betrayed.
When Putin's oligarch in the top of the British list
of most wealthy people, when government officials
from Russia buy apartments costing ?11 million in London,
when they are freely travelling all over Europe and all over
the world despite having special regulations,
so-called bribery act in Britain and you can, without any problems,
prosecute these people on your own laws, for money
laundering, for bribery but they feel completely free.
I feel betrayed.
But it doesn't have anything to do with Donald Trump, so far.
Isn't one of your big problem is that Vladimir Putin has very
successfully wrapped himself in the Russian flag,
he's used nationalism as a potent political force and he's done it
in recent years by projecting Russian power beyond your borders.
Obviously I'm thinking in particular of events in Ukraine but also
what we see in Syria today.
Vladimir Putin, to your people in Russia, looks like the strong
leader revising Russian power that so many Russian people want.
Vladimir Putin just tried to distract Russian people
from their real problems like inequality and poverty.
You have 23 million Russian citizens living below the poverty line
and he has distracted them from this problem with his imperial delusion
about making Russia great again and all this stuff.
You call it an imperial delusion.
Vladimir Putin would say to you, getting back Crimea,
which is ours and historically was always ours and means so much
to the people in this country, that's not a delusion,
that's something that he has delivered for the Russian people.
I would say that everyone in Russia would be much happier
if Vladimir Putin delivered some more wealth to the Russian people,
not just to his oligarchs because what happened in Russia
in terms of the economy, I will use the favourite term of Mr Trump,
it's a disaster what's going on inside of the country.
Yes, Vladimir Putin has very aggressive behaviour
towards everyone in this world but it's just because he doesn't
have an ability to solve problems inside Russia.
Are you telling me that your message to the Russian people is that
if you, Alexey Navalny, were in power in the Kremlin, you
would hand Crimea back to Ukraine?
Is that what you would do?
I don't think that there are simple decisions on this issue
but I would say that first of all I would start
a new and honest referendum in Crimea and hear the voice
of the Crimean people in an honest referendum.
With all due respect, international law is quite clear.
Crimea belongs to Ukraine and was annexed illegally,
so if you are to reset Russia to create a new dynamic
between Russia and the outside world, you would have to hand
Are you prepared to do that and tell the Russian
people you would do that?
I would admit honestly that it was an illegal
annexation, yes it's true.
But there is no simple decision like moving Crimea
back and forth, right?
And I would say that this is a problem that won't have any
decision for a couple of decades, maybe longer.
It would be something like Northern Cyprus or territory
we're sharing with Japan for decades, or
All conflicts like this, they don't have a simple solution.
Maybe they don't have a solution at all but what we should really
consider in this situation is the opinion of
the people in Crimea.
Actually, we have no idea what they think
because the referendum, which was done by Vladimir
Putin, was just a fake.
We need a new referendum and it should be the start
of what we're doing later.
So the context here again comes back to Donald Trump,
because whether it be on the Ukraine-Crimea issue
of whether it's on Syria, Donald Trump has indicated
that he can foresee the easing of sanctions, maybe even the removal
of US sanctions on Russia if Putin will work with him on what Trump
regards as the big priority, which is the fight against jihadist
terror, the so-called Islamic State movement.
How would you feel if the United States eased
sanctions against Russia?
I cannot support the sanctions which applied
to the Russian economy in general since I've been a Russian citizen.
But I will definitely be very unhappy with Mr Trump if he eases
and cancels the sanctions which apply to particular
personalities, like friends of Vladimir Putin, or Putin's
oligarchs or corrupt officials who were in his closest circle
because actually these sanctions are very nice for the Russian
people and it's supported by the Russian people.
But, to put it bluntly, do you think Donald Trump cares
about issues inside Russia, human rights, freedom, democracy?
I would say that the previous administration and the
administration before Obama didn't care about this as well.
Some of them said something but in general they just don't care
and I don't have any delusion about this.
You have, from the very beginning of your political activity,
focused on corruption.
You talked from the very beginning about Putin's regime being a regime
of crooks and thieves.
Has it changed in any way during the decade
that you've been working on anti-corruption activities?
Yes, it's changed, it's become bigger.
Now, Putin's friends, his very close circle
of friends, they just replaced the Russian economy itself.
90% of the government procurement is his friends and he has literally
maybe five people who just grab all of the Russian economy,
all government procurements, all government contracts.
All roads, all bridges, all tunnels are constructed
in Russia by Mr Rotenberg, and Mr Timchenko, who was
the closest associate of Mr Putin.
They are doing everything, they are supplying equipment for
Gazprom, supplying pharmacy, supplying medical equipment etc,
So let me get this straight, you're seeing things have gotten worse,
the corruption is more rampant, the cronyism is terrible and yet
Putin's approval rating is at 86%.
It suggests to me that the Russian people don't care.
Well, this is a major mistake that people make
when they discuss Putin's regime.
They are always referring to this approval rating and it's
a mistake to compare Russia, which is an authoritarian country
right now, to undevelop democracy like we have
in Eastern Europe, for example.
We should compare Russia to the countries like Uzbekistan
and Tajikistan or Zimbabwe, all of these countries.
The leaders have a rating of 95% and with authoritarian regimes
they have a maximum rating of approval until the very
end of their life.
But I want to ask you, tell me please, what was the support
of the Soviet Communist Party in our country in 1985?
What was the approval of the Russian Tsar in 1916?
More than 100%.
It means nothing actually.
Even in 2011, the rating of Putin was about 70% but out of the blue
hundreds of thousands of people came to the streets asking
Mr Putin to go away.
Right, but hundreds of thousands are not coming
onto the streets today.
You had your moment when you ran for the Moscow mayoralty in 2013.
I think you ended up getting 27% of the vote.
That, in a sense, was the high water mark for you.
Things have not been so good since and now, frankly,
you are in deep trouble.
When you leave this interview with me you have to go to Kirov
to face yet another court case where you're accused of embezzlement,
and if you lose the case you are going to face a new sentence
which could involve...
But I had the same in 2012, before my mayoral election.
I had the same before thd rally in Moscow's streets and,
I guess, from 2010 I've never had a day in my life when I wasn't under
criminal prosecution because that's how they fight me.
You've had convictions, you've had house arrest,
you may well end up in prison again.
Your brother is currently in prison in solitary confinement.
You know that you're treading a very fine line and if you go one inch too
far, you'll end up in prison or, who knows.
I definitely don't draw this line for myself.
I just do what I can do in this particular moment and I don't care
about what the Kremlin is doing, what their strategy is about keeping
me in prison or releasing me.
Maybe you know that I had actually a moment when they imprisoned me
for five years and I spent a night in the prison knowing nothing
about what was going on in Moscow when tens of thousands of people
came to the streets and they forced Vladimir Putin to release me.
The people who came to the street, they're not gone.
There are still living in the city, still living in the country and I'm
absolutely 100% sure that my programme for this
presidential election is the programme based on the needs
of the majority of people.
Let me stop you there.
Are you absolutely determined, you talk about your run
for the presidency, you're determined, come what may,
to challenge for the in the election, which we believe
will come in 2018.
You are going to run, are you?
I'm going to run but I'm not a naive person.
I understand that the Kremlin is very unhappy with me running
and I understand that they will do everything to prevent
me from running.
Recently, several Kremlin officials said that I'm not allowed
to participate, but still, I'm going to appeal to the people
and ask for their support.
I mean, in this office where we speak, you've already
got your logos organised, Navalny 2018, but I put it
to you that if you lose this court case in Kirov based on accusations
of embezzlement and fraud, you will be barred from running
and whatever you tell me about your determination...
It actually does nothing in the current country.
As I said, they imprisoned me for five years and they released me
the next day.
What kind of law?
The same with my participation in the mayoral election.
It was almost impossible to participate, but when people came
to the streets and said we're not going to recognise this election
without him participating.
So you think you can use people power against Putin?
Actually, it's the only tool I can use.
It's all I have.
Mr Navalny, I'm tempted to say to you, get real.
You know what happened to Khodorkovsky, you know
what happened to Kasparov, who is now in exile,
you know what happened to Boris Nemtsov.
Are you telling me to get real?
I am real, I can assure you that I'm real.
I have my brother spending time in jail, taken away from his family,
and as you mentioned he's in solitary confinement.
They are really torturing him every time I issued new investigations,
so I'm a guy from real life here in Russia.
I understand everything and I do believe that people's support can
prevail against whatever strategy Putin has against me.
Boris Nemtsov, whom you knew very well, was walking down a street just
a couple of hundred metres from the Kremlin
when he was murdered.
That is the reality of Moscow today.
You are not immune from that.
I had a meeting with him and volunteers who were preparing
the big rally.
After this meeting with the volunteers,
we went on the street and I was arrested for 15 days
and he was killed a week later.
So I understand what's going on in Russia and I understand
there are a lot of risks and I understand the danger,
but this is my country.
I'm going to fight for my country and I know that I'm right and I know
that the development of the country is much better
than capturing new territories.
Look at the map, we're quite a bit country,
we don't need new territories and I'm sure that I will explain
to the Russian people that my alternative is better
than Vladimir Putin.
Let me just ask you one, perhaps, strange question.
Why do you think you are free to walk the streets of Moscow today?
So many other opposition people are not but you are.
Could it be that you are useful to Vladimir Putin because he can
always say, look we are a democracy because Alexey Navalny is allowed
to do his thing, he's allowed to talk to the BBC,
he's allowed to run anti-corruption office, that proves what a free
and democratic place we are?
You could be a useful tool to Vladimir Putin.
I don't know.
Yes, I'm allowed to talk to the BBC, but unfortunately I'm not allowed
to talk to the Russian TV stations.
You had an interview with Mr Peskov and you asked him
about me several times.
Did he ever mention my name?
The same as Putin.
Even pro-Kremlin journalists are laughing about the situation
because for all these years he never mentioned my name.
He's afraid of...
Not about me, but he's afraid of the people I represent.
You talk about Dmitry Peskov, who I'm going to see again in just
a couple of days' time.
He seems supremely confident that Vladimir Putin has a grip on this
country that will not be relinquished.
What would you say to Peskov that might undermine his confidence?
Well, I guess, a lot of Russian people have a major question to ask
Mr Peskov, and the question is, why are you lying all the time?
For decades he's never said a single word of truth.
He's lying all the time.
How does he manage to deal with himself?
Getting up in the morning and looking at himself in the mirror
and saying to himself, today, again, I will live as a lying human being.
The problem is, as you've said in this interview,
you don't get access to Russian state TV,
you do not get the sort of media coverage.
You can't win.
That's the problem, you just cannot win in the system that
Russia has today.
I can and I will.
So how do you do it?
How do you mobilise these people you claim are out there,
all of the anti-Putin feeling that you say is in Russia today,
how do you mobilise it and turn it into a political campaign?
Well, we started our campaign just a month ago and so far I have 20,000
volunteers registered in my campaign, the biggest amount
of volunteers we ever had in the history of modern Russia.
Yes, you're absolutely right, I don't have access to TV.
I never had access because Vladimir Putin took over the last independent
TV station in 2001, so I never had coverage from the state media
but I can operate without them.
In 2013, in the Moscow mayoral election, without money,
without access to the media, I got almost 30% and I'm totally
sure that I would have won in the second round if in the first
round they didn't have the usual election fraud.
We talked earlier about your brother who is in prison,
in solitary confinement.
It was a court case that involved you and him but,
ironically, he was sent to prison and you escaped prison.
He wrote to you recently.
He said this, he said, "Alexey, you cannot,
you must not stop and give in to their demands.
Even if you are considering quitting, it is out
of the question."
At what point would you decide that this is not worth it,
that you've had enough?
I really hope that there will never be such a moment because it means
that everything I've done before is useless.
All these sacrifices from my family, from my brother, by Boris Nemtsov,
who was killed, who was shot in the back close to the Kremlin.
A lot of other people too.
We have political prisoners, hundreds of them all over Russia,
and if I stop it means all these sacrifices are useless.
They are not.
I do believe in what I'm doing and I do believe that my alternative
is better for Russia and I'm absolutely sure that we will succeed
and I believe in victory.
We have a tough time right now with this imperial delusion,
yes, but political trends are changing.
People have become poor, people are asking questions
and I have the support from family and from the people and I'm not
going to let them down.
Alexey Navalny, we have to end there but thank
you for being on Hardtalk.
Thank you very much.
There is definitely a pattern emerging with our weather.
Stephen Sackur is in Moscow for a special edition of HARDtalk with Russia's most prominent opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Despite harassment and legal challenges, he says that he will challenge Vladmir Putin in presidential elections which are scheduled for 2018. But will his defiance cost him dear?