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Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Arrested After Protests

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Nearly a hundred anti-corruption protests were held across Russia yesterday. They were the largest protests in Russia in five years. Hundreds of people were arrested, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Vladimir Pozner is an independent journalist in Russia.

VLADIMIR POZNER: I think people are really fed up with the level of corruption in Russia. People came out because corruption is really one of the most debilitating things happening in Russia. And everyone's affected from top to bottom, one way or the other. So I think when they got this call let's get out there and let the government know how we feel about this, they decided to go and do it.

MCEVERS: And why is it that it's been so long since there have been protests? If corruption is such a problem, you know.

POZNER: Well, I think it's a combination of things. First of all, it is a problem, but it's one of those things that kind of builds. You know, the first year you say OK, forget about it, second year, third year. Finally, it comes to a level where you're just completely fed up. That's one thing. The other thing is the protests that you referred to, the 2012 protests, they were political. And they were about the elections.

And I have to admit that the last elections in Russia have been relatively fair. And they've not really caused an outcry on the part of most people. But this was something that really, really affects everybody. There were about 150,000 people in the streets yesterday, which wasn't all that much for a country as big as Russia. But considering how few protests there are...

MCEVERS: Right.

POZNER: ...It was quite something. I have to say that Alexei Navalny has got an organization. He's got people in many of the cities around the country. And they planned this for a long time. And they got to the population. They were able to do it. It was well organized.

MCEVERS: And tell us more about Alexei Navalny.

POZNER: Well, he must be in his late 30s, maybe early 40s. He grew up here, got his education here but then went on to the United States. And he went to Harvard. And I think that perhaps his American experience led him to become politically much more active.

And he's gradually become this figure that is seen as the main opposition to the Putin government. And there are quite a few people who support him. He's always been on his own. He's never wanted to join any of the other opposition parties. And he has announced officially that he will run for president of Russia in 2018 against Putin.

MCEVERS: And what kind of threat do you think he poses to Putin in that election or in general, in the streets?

POZNER: Well, in my opinion, he poses absolutely no threat to Putin in that election except if things like this keep happening, he might pose more and more of a threat. When I say things like this, I mean the fact that on none of the major television networks was there any news about these protests - nothing at all, zero.

The word gets out very quickly of course. And people get to know about it. And so they're going to start looking for alternative sources of information. If they keep doing this, then I think Navalny is going to become more dangerous, not less.

MCEVERS: Navalny was arrested yesterday.

POZNER: Yes, he was.

MCEVERS: And what does that mean that - for him going forward and other protest organizers? I mean, how at risk are they if they continue with this work?

POZNER: In fact, I think that Navalny's being arrested is part of his own strategy. It makes him look like a real fighter for people's rights, for, you know, against the Putin government. And I happen to believe that had he not been arrested, he would have been disappointed.

Now, I'm not, by the way, in any way saying that he's not a courageous man, that he doesn't have principles, that he's ready to fight for. But nonetheless, in this particular case, it was part of a political game that he's playing as a candidate for the presidency in 2018.

MCEVERS: There's obviously a lot of talk about Russia here in the United States these days and about the new administration and its ties to Russia. Does that come up with people in the streets, with protesters?

POZNER: No, it certainly doesn't. I think most people here really laugh at it. They say what's going on there in America? Why can't American officials, even if they're not yet elected, meet with the Russian ambassador? What's the crime? It makes no sense at all, it really doesn't.

MCEVERS: Interesting.

POZNER: Yeah, that - so it's not part of any kind of protest, no.

MCEVERS: Do you think we'll see more protests in the near future?

POZNER: I'm certain and certainly.

MCEVERS: Vladimir Pozner's a Russian journalist who joined us from Moscow on Skype. Thank you so much.

POZNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.