Russian authorities have arrested thousands of people during anti-government protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been held in jail since returning to Russia on January 17 after recovering in Germany from an attempt on his life in August using the nerve agent Novichok. Navalny has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the poisoning that nearly killed him. While Navalny has emerged as Russia’s leading opposition figure and anti-corruption campaigner, his political roots have links to right-wing nationalist and anti-immigrant causes. Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker, says that Navalny has been willing to change and adapt his views to court public opinion, including through his “flirtation” with Russian nationalism. “We’ll only know what sort of politician Navalny is when he’s actually allowed to participate in formal politics.”
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Alexei Navalny, and we want to talk about the protests right now, the major protests in Russia. Moscow police have arrested at least 237 people today alone outside a court hearing for the opposition figure Alexei Navalny. A Russian judge is deciding whether to send him to prison for three-and-a-half years, stemming from a previous conviction for which he was given a suspended sentence. Outside the courthouse, protesters criticized the proceedings.
PROTESTER: [translated] The only possible opinion here is that this trial is a sham, like many other trials in Russia. This is a politically motivated case, obviously. The person was poisoned in Russia, but the crime is not under investigation. The person returned into Russia, and have jailed him straightaway and suing him. And the hearing was in Khimki. Everything that is going on is a full-blown delusion, having nothing to do with justice.
AMY GOODMAN: The hundreds arrested just today are on top of the 5,100 people who were arrested over the weekend across Russia to call for the release of Navalny and to criticize the government. Jailed since returning to Russia on January 17th after receiving medical care in Germany, as you mentioned, after being poisoned with the nerve agent in August, Navalny has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the attack. Last week, he briefly spoke during a court proceeding.
ALEXEI NAVALNY: [translated] I want to say one more time: You won’t succeed in frightening us. In fact, we are the majority. You won’t manage to frighten dozens of millions of people who were robbed by those in power, despite the fact that those people who are now under arrest faced hardships.
AMY GOODMAN: While Navalny has emerged as Russia’s leading opposition figure and anti-corruption campaigner, his political roots have links to right-wing nationalist and anti-immigrant causes. In 2007, expelled from a liberal party for his involvement in the annual far-right Russia march, he also once appeared in a video that compared Muslims in the North Caucasus to cockroaches.
Joshua Yaffa, you’re the Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker. You’ve been covering all of this. I’m wondering if you can talk about the latest, who Navalny is, what it means that he’s back, that he was poisoned. And just today, when they said, “You didn’t report back enough to the court,” he said, “I was in a coma.”
JOSHUA YAFFA: That’s right. The latest is that at this very moment Navalny is awaiting a decision from a Moscow court, which will determine whether or not he’ll be sent to prison for three-and-a-half years, based off of facts from a case that you just mentioned. Formally, the Russian authorities are charging him with violating the terms of his parole for not appearing regularly at a police station as required. Of course, he didn’t appear at the police station in Russia because he had been airlifted to Germany for medical care after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. So, a real Kafkaesque dark comedy of the absurd in a Moscow courtroom today, but the consequences are not funny, but in fact very real. And if the prosecutor gets his or her way — and really, it’s, of course, not a question of what the prosecutor wants or what the judge wants, but what the Kremlin decides and instructs the court to do — Navalny may well be sent to prison for three-and-a-half years.
His statement to court today was very forceful, very powerful, very direct. He didn’t so much address the legal minutiae of the case as the political context surrounding it, blaming Putin personally, suggesting that Putin could not tolerate the fact that not only did Navalny survive the poisoning attempt against his life in August, but then, from his hospital bed and recovery and rehabilitation in Germany, investigated the assassination attempt against him, identified a number of officers in the FSB, Russia’s main security service, who were involved in the attempt to kill him with poison. He even managed to get one of the FSB officers on the phone and record a conversation in which this FSB officer all but admitted to the plot.
Navalny referenced all of these facts, said that Putin and the security officials around him were humiliated, out for revenge, and that is why he was being put on court today, for having the boldness, the chutzpah, if you will, to return to Russia after having barely survived this attempt on his life, and ultimately saying that the attempt or the effort to put him in prison is actually an attempt to scare millions of Russians around the country. But, as Navalny said, calling on his supporters to continue their protests, “You can’t put the entire country in prison.”
So, we’re waiting, any minute now, the decision of this court. I think we’ll learn a lot about the Kremlin’s intentions and its mood surrounding Navalny and the protests. Do they decide in fact to send Navalny to prison for three-and-a-half years? Do they decide for some kind of deescalation measure, like giving him house arrest? We should find out any minute now, but I think that will determine a lot about not only what the Kremlin is thinking, but how these events, especially the protests, are likely to continue in the coming days.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Joshua, I wanted to ask you — we’ve heard a lot about Navalny being an anti-corruption crusader, but it’s my experience that all politicians who are out of power claim that those in power are corrupt. What more do we know about Navalny’s political views? I mean, we know that he has espoused anti-Muslim racism or sentiments on many occasions. But what about his views, for instance, on the annexation of Crimea, on Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, or, even more importantly, his view on what happened even before Putin came into power, the massive selloff of public assets that occurred during the Yeltsin years, that, to some extent, Putin put a stop to?
JOSHUA YAFFA: Well, I’m not so sure that Putin put a stop to that corruption as so much nationalized, effectively, the corruption and put it under the control of himself and figures from his inner circle, creating a new oligarchy, not so much disrupting or dismantling the oligarchy of the ’90s, but creating a new, alternative oligarchy that was loyal to him and benefited from their proximity to him and owed their wealth to him.
As to Navalny himself and what kind of figure he is, first and foremost, he’s a politician, which means, on the one hand, he can be vague when politically expedient, and he can avoid taking sharp controversial positions that would alienate some portion of his audience or potential audience. He can also change his mind and float or try and use various political tendencies and moods in the country at the time to his advantage. That seems to be the case with his flirtation with Russian nationalism, you mentioned, from the mid-2000s. I think that’s the same thing that is at work in his rather ambiguous comments about the annexation of Crimea. He certainly does not suggest that if he were to become president, Russia would return Crimea to Ukraine tomorrow — in fact, quite the opposite. I don’t know how much —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds, Joshua.
JOSHUA YAFFA: I think that all that says that we will only know what sort of politician Navalny is when he’s actually allowed to participate in formal politics. So far, he’s been kept off the ballot, was not allowed to run for president in 2008.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Joshua Yaffa, for joining us, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker. We’ll link to his report, “Navalny’s Long-Running Battle,” at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Wear two.