Tim Ogden & Vazha Tavberidze

After Putin: an interview with Navalny’s exiled chief of staff

Leonid Volkov, left, alongside the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, right.

Even with Alexei Navalny imprisoned, Russia’s opposition continues to struggle against Vladimir Putin and his quarter-century of Kremlin rule. This already daunting task has been made harder by the fact that key figures are now imprisoned or in exile: the opposition leader’s principal aides Vladimir Ashrukov and Leonid Volkov have fled to London and Vilnius respectively, while Navalny himself is serving a three-year prison sentence for supposed fraud.

Still, his inner circle continues to plan Putin’s downfall from beyond Russia’s border ­— and they now believe they have the support to succeed. The first stage, Volkov tells me, is mass protests. Already Navalny’s movement has led to thousands of people rallying in public since January. Yet the opposition’s aim now is to encourage a million people to take to the streets to demand, at a minimum, their leader’s release:

It is bigger than just calling for Navalny’s release. Our message is that if you are unhappy with Putin for any reason — whether it’s economical or political or ecological — join us. Because if you are a small group, you will be dispersed and not heard. Even if you are not a fan of Navalny, join us, so that we can rid the country of corruption. We believe a demonstration of a million people is possible.

The strategy is perhaps more intricate than might be immediately apparent. According to Volkov, Putin himself is not the sole target:

It’s very clear that Putin’s political strategy is to stay in the Kremlin and of course he doesn’t want to go. But we are addressing not only Putin personally — we hope to achieve some kind of split within his elite. We want to make some of his cronies and supporters rethink their personal strategies. That’s the most plausible strategy for possible change. So maybe at some point his core supporters will see the wave of protests and see that it will be a better strategy to get out.

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