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Putin's Most Prominent Opponent Says There's No Doubt Kremlin Interfered In 2016 Election


We're going to hear next from another major player on the political stage in Russia. Yesterday on the show, we introduced you to Ksenia Sobchak. She's challenging President Vladimir Putin in the upcoming elections even though she admits she has no chance of winning. I asked her to respond to critics who say she's only in the race to lend a veneer of legitimacy, to make it look free and fair.


KSENIA SOBCHAK: I would say it's a lie because I think Putin maybe underestimates me, or he's less afraid of me than he's afraid of, for example, Alexei Navalny.

KELLY: Afraid of Alexei Navalny - Navalny is Putin's most prominent political opponent, and today we meet him. NPR's Lucian Kim sat down with Navalny in Moscow, and Lucian's here now to share what he learned in that interview. Hi there.


KELLY: Start with just a quick sketch. Who is Navalny, for people who don't follow Russian politics?

KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny is a Moscow lawyer. He basically started as a shareholder activist who became an anti-corruption campaigner, which led him to start leading protests, especially when big anti-government rallies broke out in Russia in 2011.

KELLY: And he's in his mid-40s - right? - a different generation from Putin.

KIM: Yeah. He appeals to a different generation because of his style. And he's very effectively used the Internet, where he is bypassing state media and going directly to his supporters.

KELLY: OK. And you had this fascinating chance to sit down with him. I gather you all talked for nearly an hour. So you must have asked about all kinds of things. But can I start here? I'm curious if you asked him about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and arguably the biggest thorn in U.S.-Russia relations. The Kremlin says, didn't happen - we didn't do it. What does Navalny say?

KIM: Well, of course this subject came up. And I asked him, you know, what do you think? (Laughter) Was there really interference in the election? And this is what he had to say.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He doesn't have the tiniest doubt about it because that's also what the Kremlin does inside Russia. He says that he and also other opposition leaders have had their email accounts hacked. And their Twitter accounts and even YouTube have been attacked by these armies of bots.

KELLY: Oh, so he's saying he buys that Russia hacked U.S. elections 'cause they hack people in Russia, too, including him.

KIM: Exactly.

KELLY: What - did you ask him about President Trump and what he makes of the relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin?

KIM: Navalny says he can't understand that relationship because Putin's main agenda, including inside Russia, is anti-Americanism. So how could someone like Trump be his favorite president? He says there's no rational explanation, and he thinks that (laughter) only a new Watergate, in his words, could solve this mystery.

KELLY: Hypothetical question, Lucian, because Navalny, we should mention, is not on the ballot in next month's election - he's not being allowed to run, but did you ask him what his vision for Russia would be, Russia on the world stage if he ever got the chance to run the country?

KIM: Yes. I mean, during the course of this interview, there were (laughter) hypothetical moments which also made him laugh out loud. When I presented him with a question - well, let's say that you actually won this election, that you participated and won the election, how would you change relations with the West? This is how he answered.

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "We're a Western country." Those are his exact words. Navalny is saying that even if you go to Russia's far east, to the Pacific coast, you'll feel like you're in Europe. You won't feel like you're in Korea or Japan. He told me that Russia should be a leading European power and that its aim should eventually be to join the European Union. This of course automatically caused me to ask him about NATO. And at that point, Navalny laughed and said, well, actually, Vladimir Putin was the first person to mention joining NATO.

KELLY: Which would be an interesting development given that NATO is a security alliance expressly founded to counter Russian power and influence in the world.

KIM: Exactly. Navalny's main point was that Russia has no strategic contradiction with the United States and that what both sides really need to do is sort of form a joint security umbrella and fight common threats like nuclear nonproliferation or terrorism.

KELLY: Can I ask you, Lucian, just what he's like to sit with for an hour? This is a guy who has been physically assaulted, who has been jailed more times than he can probably remember. And you were sitting there in his office, which not just a few weeks ago they chainsawed the door off as security forces went in to ransack it again.

KIM: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. Well, as a person, I found Navalny surprisingly unpretentious, and he definitely has a certain charisma. He has a good sense of humor. And we only were slated to speak for half an hour, and that went over by 20 minutes.

KELLY: Does he seem frightened for his life, for his own security?

KIM: He doesn't make the impression of a person who's frightened. I think he's already experienced quite a lot in his life. His brother is in jail right now. He's spent quite a few short terms in jail. So he's not easily intimidated.

KELLY: Lucian, thank you.

KIM: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim talking about his interview with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMADE ORQUESTRA'S "SAMURAI") 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.