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World

Putin Critic Arrested In Presidential Election Boycott Protests

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we’re turning now to Russia where there were large anti-government protests on Sunday. Thousands of people were marching across the country, calling for boycotts of the presidential election in March. Now, leading these protests was Alexei Navalny. He’s one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest critics. During the protests yesterday, he was arrested, along with some 200 other people. And let’s talk about this with NPR’s Lucian Kim, who is joining us from Moscow. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So start, if you can, with reminding us how these protests came together in the first place.

KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny, who has now become Russia's most prominent opposition leader, was denied registration as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, and that's after spending more than a year campaigning. So he called for a boycott. He said, by participating, people are supporting what are, in fact, unfair elections.

GREENE: So he's arrested almost from the moment he shows up at the - at a rally in Moscow. What happens to him now if he's in custody?

KIM: Well, that's right. He was kind of bundled into a police bus almost the moment he showed up at the Moscow rally. He was later released. No charges have been brought against him yet, but it's likely he will face charges of organizing an illegal rally. I think just as dramatic is that police yesterday were breaking into the offices of his anti-corruption foundation. That's where they were broadcasting live on YouTube from around Russia's regions. But this had actually already happened before, so by the time the police got there, they were just broadcasting from an alternative, secret location.

GREENE: OK, so Navalny has a presence on YouTube and social media. He's got, like, a sizable following. He's sending a message that people should boycott this election in March, but does any of this pose a threat to Vladimir Putin?

KIM: Well, you know, state media pretends that none of this is happening. Vladimir Putin even refuses to mention Navalny's name in public. But it's important to note that Navalny does still represent a pretty narrow demographic - it's urban, young, educated, middle class. But I think the Kremlin thinks that there's a danger that this - that Navalny's movement could really snowball if there is some kind of catalyst. The economy is still limping along, poverty is quite widespread, and there's a lot of discontent with corruption.

GREENE: OK, so the Kremlin is taking the opposition movement seriously. I mean, it's not just something that can be ignored.

KIM: Well, they're acting like they're ignoring it, but it's clear from the way that they're reacting that, you know, it has spread some reason for concern.

GREENE: OK. Speaking to NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim a day after protests in Moscow, during which Alexei Navalny, the young opposition leader, was arrested. And we'll be following this story as we head towards the presidential elections in March. Lucian, thanks.

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