russian opposition leader alexei navalny is the most resilient opponent vladimir putin has ever faced. navalny survived attempted assassination by novichok, returned to russia and is now orchestrating anti—putin protests from his prison cell. my guest is navalny�*s chief of staff, leonid volkov. the opposition movement has supporters willing to take to the streets in hundreds of russian towns and cities, but do they have a strategy capable of forcing putin from power?
leonid volkov in lithuania, welcome to hardtalk. we need to begin, i think, by establishing what kind of contact you have with alexei navalny right now. do you have any means of contacting him? now the only way to contact him is that his lawyers, not even the relatives, but the lawyers are allowed to visit him two or three times a week and they don't enjoy privacy during those visits. so it's like supervised contact, but still, we manage at least to pass some basic information about, like, what's going on. but to tell that alexei is now orchestrating the protests from his cell is a little bit too much. he actually isn't able to do it. but his political structure, the structure he has built that i'm now managing, is capable of, at least for some time, of keeping pace,
of running forward, along with the directions we discussed with him when he left berlin for moscow a week ago. what kind of condition is he in? because i'm mindful that he recovered from a near—death experience with the novichok nerve agent. he did recover, but clearly he's not physically quite what he was before. so how is he now? well, he recovered physically quite well. this was... that was an important condition for his decision to go back to russia, because, of course, he realised he would face serious risks while back in russia, and he wanted to be ready, like, being completely fit. so his physical condition is fine, but he's in solitary confinement in a prison called matrosskaya tishina, which is quite an infamous one. for instance, it's the prison where sergei magnitsky, the lawyer, was tortured
and died back in 2009. are you trying to imply to me that he's undergoing any sort of physical or mental abuse or torture right now? no, not now, definitely not. but it's definitely also not the best place in the world for him to be in, not the safest world. it's a prison run by the russian secret service, fsb. so he is in custody of the very people who tried to kill him just five months ago. let me ask you about this notion of who's in charge right now, because, as i understand it, after the massive january 23rd effort to get people out on the streets, which saw protests in 100 or so russian towns and cities, there is now a plan to undertake another set of demonstrations on january 31st. now, you're telling me that navalny is in no place to actually orchestrate and manage the protest movement. so who is making these decisions?
is it you? yeah, that's me. so i managed the original network for, like, navalny political offices across the country. and, yes, i am in charge of organisation of these rallies. 0njanuary 23rd, we had 177 cities participating. like, really all russian cities and towns of, like, of population 50,000—plus, maybe, and even some smaller ones. and now we hope that onjanuary 31st, we will be able to get even more cities on the streets. you must be mindful that more than 3,000 people were arrested and there was some violence as well. is it responsible to ask people to go back on the streets at a time of covid? when it's advised that people stay well apart from each other, you want them to gather together and you want them
to face what could be more heavy—handed police action. how responsible is that? almost 4,000 people were detained onjanuary 23rd, but most of them were released. those who stay under arrest, like several dozens of people who stay under arrest until now, are our local regional coordinators. so out of my employees, the heads of navalny offices throughout the country, like 75% of them, are under arrest now in localjails. so we take the most important, the most powerful blow from the government for organising those rallies. so the local activists and the, like, regular participants of these protest rallies are not under severe risks, but the organisers, the navalny employees, are. right, there you sit in lithuania, you're in a sort of political exile at the moment, but your colleagues in your anti—corruption movement,
like kira yarmysh, and you've also got lyubov sobol, they really run the risk of being picked up and detained at any moment. that's true. that's true, and that's morally complicated. a challenging situation for me. well, i had to move out from russia because when i was in russia, i was in detention, like, constantly. i was arrested nine times and spent over four months in detention, and then i was risking a prolonged prison term of, like, several years. it was a decision that we had to make, and that alexei authorises. someone has to stay out of the country and out of prison to manage our movement. and i would say that, of course, i would prefer to be now in moscow,
first on the streets with our supporters and then in the detention centre where you basically, like, read books and sleep a lot and don't have to care about, like, very many things and don't have to take a lot of responsibility. now, indeed, there is a lot of responsibility because, first of all, we have to organise something while almost all our staff is under arrest. and that's really quite... quite the challenge, and we have been working really hard, because, as i told you, we have only, like, 25% of our staff out ofjail now. so everyone has to work fourfold of the usual amount. but as you organise these repeated demonstrations, which are likely to lead to more clashes with police, are you not in danger of overplaying your hand? i'm mindful that, in the last few days, the putin government has accused demonstrators of being violent and aggressive, of manipulating children, putting them
at the front of the demonstrations in a way that, according to the government, draws comparisons with terrorists. and mr putin has already said to the russian people, "be very careful of those who sow the seeds of chaos and instability. "we know that when that happens, it is the ordinary people who suffer." that's a message that russian people may listen to. the lucky thing is, the russian people do not any more want to listen to mr putin's messages. they know his messages are lies, they know he's a killer, a poisoner and a thief. they now are all aware of his palace in the south of russia, worth, like, £1 billion. they are all aware about navalny poisonings that happened five months ago. a0 million people followed the investigation of this poisoning, which was conducted by the fsb squad, by mr putin's order.
fortunately, this, putin's propaganda, based on lies, is not any more as efficient as it used to be just several years ago. and funny enough, now putin says those who put children in front are terrorists, while there is no record of, like, children participating in our protest. just today, i recorded another video asking and urging parents not to take people with them on the protest. but it's putin's famous quote from 2014, from the times of annexation of crimea, when he said on record that if ukrainian military would like to shoot into russian military, we will let women and children in front of our soldiers so that they will have to shoot women and children. so putin pretty much described himself as a terrorist, which is actually true. he is a terrorist.
you've made a whole series of charges there against vladimir putin and his government, which, of course, putin personally and the government collectively reject out of hand. i'm just wondering, with your strategy, your incredibly confrontational strategy right now, and i'm thinking, as you've just raised it, of the release of the video of this vast palace on the black sea, which you say is worth $1 billion and which is entirely for the use of vladimir putin. and you point to the claims that you say there's a pole—dancing arena, there is a casino, there are toilet brushes from italy worth $800. seems to me you're trying to ridicule and humiliate vladimir putin. is that your strategy now? that's true, and he deserves to be ridiculed and humiliated, because putin's propaganda has built, has worked hard to build an image of a strategist, of a geopolitical strategist,
of a great leader, while we always knew that vladimir putin used to have a very unsuccessful career at the secret service. he did much worse than many of his colleagues. he was not a brilliant spy or something like this. and now when we are able to have a look inside his palace, it's also a look inside his head, his mind. and he saw that it's just a mind of a very small man, of a leprechaun, who just wants to have as much gold as possible, and that's it. but the thing is, the more you personalise this, you make it all about vladimir putin, and it's navalny versus putin, the more the danger surely is that you entrench vladimir putin, and you don't actually build an organisation capable of strategic, long—term opposition from the grassroots up. what you're doing is building up navalny as this sort of theatrical hero to take
on the evil putin. but that isn't necessarily going to make your organisation capable of all of the hard, determined, strategic work to build an effective opposition. well, first of all, you probably don't have to use, like, western approach to russian politics, because, as you might know, it's now not possible to build a proper grassroots political organisation in russia — you just get repressed by the government. as we are talking right now, all our offices, once again, are being searched by the police, all equipment seized, pretty much every one of those who was still enjoying relative freedom are being put to jail. so in view of the upcoming protest of january 31st, they're trying to destroy the remnants of our
political organisation. if you're saying, "all we've got is the ability to create sensational headlines and to personalise this," what is the long—term strategy? for example, there's an anti—putin commentator in the united kingdom, i'm sure you know his work, ed lucas, who worries out loud that right now the opposition is in danger of building a scenario a bit like belarus, where you can get people out onto the streets, but you're not able to deliver the organisation and the activism across the country to really begin to undermine putin's grip on power. but that's exactly wrong, because what we already have in place is a political organisation. you can't get people out on the streets in 177 cities without a political organisation. we have navalny offices, which is a horizontal grassroots organisation, up and running in a0 cities. we have several hundreds,
thousands of volunteers who participate in local activism and local projects in those regions. so they are exactly the organisations that you just described. and a proof that this organisation is efficient, it was able to organise country—wide protest, in minus 30 degrees centigrade in many towns, amidst winter and amidst an enormous terroristic propaganda campaign that claimed for days, using all their channels of television and other channels of propaganda, and everyone who decides to turn out will be arrested, harassed, beaten by the police and so on. despite — 300,000 people turned out. the point of the comparison with belarus is surely that the police, the security services, the entire security structure in belarus right now appears to be staying loyal to president lukashenko.
and, as far as we can tell, in russia, the security apparatus is absolutely loyal to president putin. is it true that on the next demonstration, you're encouraging people in moscow to demonstrate outside the headquarters of the intelligence services, the fsb? yes, indeed. 0ur assembly point onjanuary 31st is the fsb headquarters, because fsb are the people responsible for killings, for tortures, for poisoning of alexei navalny. so i think it's the best place to protest. but isn't that simply going to ensure that all of those operatives inside the fsb and the security apparatus view you as the enemy? they already do. that's putin's strategy. as lukashenko did — he antagonises security forces against peaceful protesters, against the civil society. that's already the case in russia — he can't do it worse.
that's what we have. that's the reality that we face. and you're right, it's very severe, it's very dangerous. for instance, 300,000 people turned out for the protest onjanuary 23rd, but 30 million watched broadcasts about this protest live, 30 million people followed, so 100 times more. and it actually denotes that among those 30 million that actually would like probably to join this protest, 99 out of 100 are scared. and that's because of the police violence, and that's because of this antagonisation. but if you believe that the security apparatus regards you as the enemy and you have no hope of building bridges or winning some of them over, then it seems to me the more you bring people out onto the streets, as you plan to do over the next few weeks and months, the more likely it is that you're going to plunge russia into long—term civil conflict.
is that what you want? there is no way, like, a civil conflict, a civil war could happen. well, there is a civil war, in terms of, like, propaganda. there is a very strong antagonisation, yeah, within, like, putin and his propaganda machine, and normal people, while putin is trying to, like, scare people off and prohibit everything. but in terms of, like, conflict using, like, weapons, no, it's not possible, and it's not going to happen, just because our demonstrations are always peaceful and people just don't have weapons on their hands in russia. what we want to achieve is to get back at least some of the political freedoms we have lost in the last few years. we want to get back at least the right to participate in an election. we have an election scheduled, a national parliamentary election scheduled, like, injust eight months,
in september 2021, we want to win participation. and we think it's possible. it's still feasible. well, that's interesting. so your political strategy is to aim at those parliamentary elections in september. but, of course, you know that the russian government has ways of banning political parties it doesn't like. and that is probably going to happen to the party that you and navalny created. so what's your strategy? are you going to try to find independent candidates to get people to vote for the best anti—putin option? exactly, exactly. that's what we are doing. we're going to identify those candidates that have the best chance to prevail upon putin's candidates in their districts, even if our candidates are not, again, admitted to the ballot. and this will help us to create as much political turbulence as possible, just for the parliament,
at least, to become not uni—partisan, to become more diverse. and this will already be like a huge step forward for russia and for its civil society. in previous interviews, you've complained to me how the state control of most of the media, particularly television and broadcast media in russia, makes it very difficult for the opposition. i'm very mindful that you are a computer scientist and a bit of a computer guru. i'm just wondering whether you believe that the russian state is going to continue to allow you to use social media platforms, particularly like youtube and tiktok and other platforms, to get your message to the russian people, particularly young russian people. so far, you're sort of achieving that. but we all know that russia is pretty sophisticated in its ability to control the internet, and even social media platforms. so perhaps you're going to find you're running out of road, even online. well, we don't
need their approval. we are, yes, quite sophisticated and savvy, like, in technical things. we know how to overcome the most threats they are able to use against us. and we know how to educate people to use, like, i don't know, vpns and other tools to overcome the blacklist. that's always quite the competition. but at least it's an area where we actually could compete with them. and, as of now, we are competing quite successfully. for instance, the website for smart voting, where we issue our advices, like for whom to support in which district, is actually technically blocked by the russian government. it is on the blacklist. it, by law, couldn't be accessed from russia. still, it's up and running and it's accessible. some of the state media in russia today is describing navalny as a puppet of the west. and withjoe biden now
in the white house and saying that he's going to bring a very different policy toward putin, a much tougher policy, and he already raised the issue of alexei navalny and the poisoning in his first phone conversation with putin, are you calling on the biden administration and the west to be much tougher in terms of sanctions? we call on the west to be much tougher on the sanctions on putin's money. so putin's money is something that really, actually, is able to corrupt, and corrupt political institutions in the west. it's something that does weaken corrupt political institutions in the west already. just see how many european politicians are overly dependent on putin's money. and, yes, it's time to do something against this. as we called many times, it's time to hunt and freeze... it's time to hunt and freeze those assets that technically belong to, like, russian oligarchs, but actually belong to vladimir putin personally,
because many of his friends, oligarchs, are actually just his wallets. a final thought. and we bring it back to alexei navalny — cos you've said to me part of your strategy right now is to personalise this as a struggle between navalny and putin — the truth about alexei navalny is that he faces a new court hearing, after which he may well be charged with new crimes, crimes that could keep him in prison for many years to come. isn't that really the problem you've got — that navalny may well be behind bars for a very long time, and without him, your movement has a fundamental problem of leadership? 0ur movement has proven that it's able to operate with alexei navalny as a symbol. when he was under house arrest in 2014 for a year, cut off internet communication, when he was in coma in berlin for a month,
when he was detained for several months in the past, we always were able to operate, we know what to do. and in the case when alexei is imprisoned, well, he becomes a symbol, a flag, a natural point of consolidation for all those dissenters of putin's regime, for any reason. and i think, actually, putin realises that quite good. but right now, you're right. so all our efforts are concentrated on those upcoming court hearing. and that's why we are staging those protests right now, because it's very important for us that this court releases alexei free, because we all know that this court decision will be entirely political, and it depends, actually, on how much pressure we will be able to put on putin and on his courts on the russian streets.
leonid volkov, i thank you very much for joining me on hardtalk. hello there. it can be a fine line between rain and snow here in the uk, and the battle lines are certainly drawn over the next few days. cold air to the east of us, mild air to the south and west. on that dividing line, which this weekend pushes its way southwards, this is where we could see that rain—snow mix, particularly on saturday. this swirl of winds a developing weather system, developing area of low pressure, which pushes into that cold air. and on the weather fronts that reach the cold air,
we could see some significant snow, parts of wales and parts of southern england especially. the exact details on that, though, will change. we'll keep you updated. today, though, is a fairly quiet one. there will be plenty of cloud around and some showers. a cold start, too, across parts of scotland. here, we're seeing snow throughout the night, temperatures low enough for some ice and made to feel colder by strong winds. stronger but milder winds across the south as well. here, we'll see some early showers across wales, southwest england, pushing across the southern half of england and wales. the odd rumble of thunder possible, brightening up later. some mist and fog around the midlands, northern england to begin with, brightening up but then clouding over as rain and eventually a little bit of hill sleet pushes in. brightening up, too, to parts of the northern half of scotland, compared with what we've seen. patchy rain and sleet into southern areas as we finish the day and that north—south contrast, as far as temperatures. the colder air on the move further southwards, then, as we go through friday night into saturday, and as this weather front approaches off the atlantic, initially, rain, and quite a bit of rain could cause some minorflooding towards the south west and across some
southern counties. temperatures here holding up, but a greater chance of some frost — —7 to start the weekend in northern scotland. but as that rain pushes into the cold air, the potential for not only some heavy snow, but with strong winds, blizzards over the welsh hills. at the moment, it looks like wales, into parts of the midlands, maybe southeast england could see some snow. how much, of course, that will depend on where that weather front will lie. we'll keep you updated, and certainly worth watching the forecast. the further north you are, it does look like it should be a dry, bright, cold start to the weekend, but that frost will return with a vengeance as we go through saturday night into sunday. and as one weather system clears, another one will be approaching, so whilst it will be a frosty, bright and, in places, icy start to sunday, this next weather system, bringing rain initially to southwestern areas, could turn to snow as it pushes across england, wales and northern ireland later in the day. keep checking your forecast here, though, on bbc news. bye for now.
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