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Putin Critic Calls For Presidential Election To Be Boycotted


It's official. Vladimir Putin is running for president of Russia in the upcoming presidential election next month. He was officially registered as a candidate. This is not a surprise, of course. Officials, though, are not letting his most vocal challenger, Alexei Navalny, run, and now the Russian opposition leader is calling for a boycott of the election, which he calls a farce. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim caught up with Navalny yesterday.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So remind me about who Navalny is.

KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer. He's 41 years old, quite charismatic. And he started as a shareholder activist, became an anti-corruption campaigner. Now he's a protest leader. He really came out of nowhere and has become so toxic for the Kremlin that Putin won't even mention his name in public. And I think that gives you an idea of how much he's gotten under Putin's skin with his slogan that Russia's being run by crooks and thieves. Right now, his brother is in jail, and Navalny has been attacked, and the office where we had the interview has been raided a couple of times. When I met him yesterday, I asked him what drives him to keep attacking the Kremlin.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Through interpreter) It's simple. I want to live in a normal country and refuse to accept any talk about Russia being doomed to being a bad, poor or servile country. I want to live here, and I can't tolerate the injustice that for many people has become routine. Probably, my profession as a lawyer led me to politics because you can't get justice here.

KIM: Navalny says he doesn't consider himself a dissident. He says he's the leader of a popular movement. The things he's demanding - an independent judiciary, competitive elections, free media - he says are supported by a majority of Russians. Of course, the Kremlin would take issue with that. Putin says Russia is a democracy and Russians already enjoy those freedoms. Navalny avoids describing his ideology in any detail. Political categories in Russia, he says, don't translate. For example, the attitudes held by die-hard Russian communists might sound like those of right-wing conservatives in the United States. Navalny seems to admire America. His face lit up when he described his time in the U.S. Eight years ago, he spent eight months on a fellowship at Yale University.

NAVALNY: (Through interpreter) It was a great experience from the point of view of seeing the bigger picture - how the world works and how American politics works. The problems between Russia and the U.S. partially stem from the fact that Putin's people still can't believe that democracy actually works.

KIM: Navalny remembers those lessons in U.S. democracy and behaves very much like a modern American politician. After being blocked from Russia's national TV channels, Navalny turned to social media. He's reached out to supporters via YouTube and Twitter to publicize rallies, raise funds and build a network of tens of thousands of volunteers nationwide. He thinks that success is the reason he was banned from running for president. The Kremlin says a previous conviction on what Navalny calls trumped-up charges is what made him ineligible to run in March. Navalny says there's a simpler explanation - Putin's fear of him.

NAVALNY: (Through interpreter) He's afraid. He understands perfectly well that his 80 percent approval ratings exist in a vacuum when there's only Putin and no other politicians, just some fake candidates. Our main problem isn't so much apathy as the belief imposed by the government that nothing can be changed. That's the basis of Putin's regime.

GREENE: OK, Alexei Navalny there speaking to Lucian Kim, our Moscow correspondent. And Lucian, let me ask you a central question. I mean, why is Putin afraid of Navalny if he can't run for president, and if his poll numbers are so high and, again, Putin is expected in every way to win?

KIM: Well, because Navalny spent the last year really building this nationwide network of volunteers, and he wants to use them as election observers to uncover any irregularities in the March 18 election. Putin was really shaken by protests in 2011 that started after accusations of vote-rigging. And really, more than anything, Putin wants legitimacy. He wants to be recognized as the popularly elected leader of Russia. And in that sense, Navalny is a threat to that because even though he's not a candidate, as you say, he's still the guy, you know, standing on the side of the street, saying the emperor has no clothes.

GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow, who was speaking to Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic. Lucian, thanks. We appreciate it.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.