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World

Putin Critic Aims To Disrupt Russian Presidential Election

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we're going to begin in Russia, where nobody doubts that President Vladimir Putin will win another term in the country's upcoming presidential election. But one man keeps trying to upset Putin's plans to stay in power. Its opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On Monday his registration to run for president was denied, and today his latest YouTube video was temporarily blocked. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is on the line. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: All right. So remind people, who is Alexei Navalny, and, I mean, is he a legitimate threat to Vladimir Putin?

KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer and an anti-corruption activist. And what's really interesting about him is he's sort of an Internet phenomenon. He wouldn't exist without it. He's successfully used the Internet to bypass state media. Now he has several YouTube channels, and he has really used those channels to talk to his supporters, to build a nationwide campaign network and also to collect donations.

As for how threatening he is to Putin, well, even independent opinion polls give him a pretty low ranking. One recent poll showed that 60 percent of Russians trust Putin and only 2 percent trust Navalny. And even just anecdotally, I've met young Russians who, well, first of all I haven't even heard of him, and others who are quite liberal in their views say they would never vote for him. I think the reason is people don't necessarily love Putin, but they are afraid of what will come after him.

GREENE: Let me - just tell me if I'm doing my math wrong here. Putin, I think, has been in power for something like 18 years as either president or prime minister. He's going for another six years, which could be 24 if he wins that. If the Kremlin looks at these poll numbers, they see Putin pretty popular still. They see Alexei Navalny not popular and people not recognizing him. If they're not worried, why not just let him run? Can't they risk this backfiring if they make news by barring him?

KIM: Well, it's always hard to know exactly what they're thinking in the Kremlin. They actually did let him run for Moscow mayor in 2013, and he surprised everyone by getting almost a third of the vote. I think it's important to remember that what we have in Russia is called a managed democracy, and Navalny is anything but manageable. So if they let him run, they also allow a certain element of unpredictability and they give him legitimacy as a real politician. So I think they would prefer an election with no serious challengers to Vladimir Putin.

GREENE: You mentioned that this young lawyer here relies on the Internet. So he's been using his YouTube channels. He had a YouTube video that's now been blocked. What happened?

KIM: Right. Well, as you mentioned, he was denied registration because of a previous conviction. Navalny calls that a trumped up charge. And yesterday he put out a YouTube video. I think we have some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: So what he's saying there is everyone who believes he should be allowed to run, even if they don't agree with him, should boycott the March election and attend nationwide rallies on January 28th. This video was in fact temporarily blocked. Navalny has said that the formal reason that was given was it had improper hashtags. (Laughter) But he's being...

GREENE: OK.

KIM: ...Defiant as always. He's telling supporters they need to go out in the street regardless. And it really looks like he's heading for a clash with the authorities in the new year.

GREENE: Well, and even if he doesn't have huge nationwide recognition, I mean, he has brought people out onto the streets in some Russian cities in pretty large numbers, right?

KIM: Yes. I mean, this year he has organized nationwide protests. And what's unique about him is that now because of his election campaign he has a network of offices across Russia which is really unrivaled. And he said he's not going to disband those offices. He's actually going to use them to organize these protests in January.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim. Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.