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World

Russian Opposition Leader Barred From Running For President

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Russia is accusing the United States of meddling in its electoral process. The foreign ministry made the charge after the U.S. State Department expressed concern over, quote, "restrictions on independent voices in Russia." This was an apparent reference to the Kremlin's refusal to allow a man named Alexei Navalny to be on the ballot to run against Vladimir Putin in the March presidential race. Putin is certain to win, but Navalny has shown he can draw tens of thousands of Russians into the streets. And he's got millions of views for his slickly produced videos revealing high-level corruption. Veteran Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker of The Guardian described him this way.

SHAUN WALKER: Alexei Navalny is really somebody that's been around on the Russian opposition scene since the last protests after Putin last came back into power back in 2012. And over the past six years, he's kind of grown into the most visible, certainly the most charismatic and - I think most people would agree - the most dangerous for the Kremlin figure in the Russian opposition. And, you know, there are two schools of thought on this. Those people who in Russia are more pro-Kremlin would say, look, if you look at all of the opinion polls, Navalny is polling at maybe 2 percent. He doesn't pose any threat at all. But of course, opinion polls in a soft authoritarian system are not necessarily the most reliable barometer.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Putin got 63 percent of the vote the last time he stood for election. But a new poll suggests that half the Russians polled are more interested in change than in stability. So is that a threat to Mr. Putin?

WALKER: I certainly think that apathy is a big threat to Putin. For many years, I've sort of felt that these high ratings that Putin has - they're certainly real. But when you dig down, and you ask a second or third question of people - and you'll find that a large number of these people who support Putin support him in a very passive way. They say, yes, sure, I vote for Putin because, you know, without Putin, there'd be chaos. What other options are there? And, of course, this is quite vulnerable because if somebody comes along and really presents a new option, then those numbers can change very quickly.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Navalny is trying to persuade voters to boycott the election. How much of a threat would that be? What - does Vladimir Putin have to worry about turnout? Even if he wins, is the turnout a question?

WALKER: I mean, that's certainly the thing that, you know, when I've spoken to people around the Kremlin they're most worried about. You know, they don't want this to look like an illegitimate election. They want this to look like, you know, the nation coming together, giving Putin another six years. But I definitely think that even for people who are broadly supportive of Putin, there is a question of, why would you bother to sort of get up on a Sunday and go and vote when, really, there's nothing at stake in these elections because we all know who's going to win? So I definitely think trying to create some kind of sense of excitement is one of the key things that the Kremlin's been working on and, so far, without too much results.

WERTHEIMER: I gather that Mr. Putin's idea is something that we have seen in the United States fairly recently, which is a kind of Make Russia Great Again theme. We have seen Russia taking a bigger role on the international stage - interference in the American elections, Mr. Putin has a role as a decider now in Syria. Is that sort of thing working with the Russians even after 18 years of Putin?

WALKER: Well, certainly, that's been kind of Putin's big idea all along. He inherited this country in 2000 that was in a terrible way after the '90s. Many people sort of still couldn't quite believe the Soviet Union had collapsed. There was widespread poverty. And his whole period has been, as you say, about making Russia great again. And what we saw with his ratings diminishing around 2011, '12, '13 and then the decisive move in Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, the sense that Russia was back on the world stage - this kind of pushed up his support again back into the '80s.

And there's still some residue of that. Certainly, people still think that Russia has been very unfairly treated by the West. They are supportive of Crimea. They're impressed by what Putin has done in Syria. But I think that only gets you so far. And it gets to a point where, you know, whatever your international ventures, however great Russia may be on the international stage from your perspective, when you've got a situation where, I think, 38 percent of Russians say they struggle to afford basic food and clothing, that sort of great power, great rhetoric will only get you so far.

WERTHEIMER: Shaun Walker has just completed 14 years reporting from Moscow. His new book is called "The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia And The Ghosts Of The Past." We reached him by Skype. Thank you very much.

WALKER: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.