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Russia expert Tony Wood discusses the arrest and possible poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who was banned from running in local elections and protested that decision. Putin’s apparent effort to contain Navalny, even though he poses no real threat, displays Putin’s paranoia, says Wood

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was arrested last week and sentenced to 30 days in prison. Within days of his arrest last Sunday, he was rushed to the hospital with what was described as a severe allergic reaction. Navalny said that he does not suffer from any allergies, and his doctor said that it was clear that he was not suffering from allergy but probably from poisoning. Despite his doctor’s protest, Navalny has now been returned to his prison cell.

Navalny recently tried to register for the Moscow city legislative elections, but his registration, as well as that of many other opposition politicians, was rejected by the electoral authorities with the argument that they had not collected enough signatures. Navalny thus organized protests, demanding the right to run for office, but officials arrested him for not having registered the protest themselves. Opposition politician Lyubov Sobol is an ally of Navalny’s who was also excluded from the Moscow election. She explained that the arrest of Navalny is part of a greater campaign to prevent opposition members from running for the national legislature, the Duma, next year. This is what she had to say.

LYUBOV SOBOL: Now I run as a candidate at Moscow State Duma, and from the very beginning we, the participating candidates, and my colleague Ivan Zhdanov, who is the head of the Anti-Corruption Fund, is also running and is now under arrest. We thought that this would be a boring campaign, that we would only have a handful of volunteers, but it turned into a major political crisis, not only in the capital but also in Russia.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in Russia is Tony Wood. He’s a member of the editorial board of the New Left Review, and his most recent book is Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. Thanks for joining us today, Tony.

TONY WOOD: My pleasure, Greg. Thanks for having me on.

GREG WILPERT: So Putin’s popularity and that of his governing party are said to have been declining recently because of an economic downturn in Russia. But Putin still maintains broad popular support according to most polls, and Navalny previously never polled above the single digit. Now, does Navalny really pose such a threat to Putin or to his administration? And if he doesn’t pose such a threat, why is Putin apparently so concerned with preventing Navalny from running?

TONY WOOD: This is a good question. One of the things that these events of the last few days have shown is that the system that Putin governs cannot really admit of any competition to the system of any kind, whether that be a very tiny minority current of opposition, which is undoubtedly what Navalny would be if he were elected. But even so, that is not permissible. And so what you see is this blockage of any opposition entering even the local government assemblies of Moscow. This is 45 seats in the city government of Moscow that are seen as being too dangerous to allow the opposition to take control of even a fraction of those. And I think that illustrates a degree of concern and paranoia on this regime that doesn’t suggest that Navalny himself is a threat, but it more illustrates that this regime doesn’t have a good understanding of where any real threat would come from, so it has to extinguish everything that might conceivably be a threat at any level. So it’s really a sign that their understanding of their own society that they’re governing is somewhat defective, I think.

GREG WILPERT: Now, Putin seems to have dominated Russian politics for almost 20 years now. Would you say that this latest crackdown on Navalny and his allies is a sign that there’s a change in his approach towards the opposition? I mean, he was elected with 76% of the vote last year. And as you mentioned, he’s in a pretty secure place, but is there any change, an evolution in terms of how he’s governing recently? Because this does seem to be more of a crackdown than previously, or am I wrong?

TONY WOOD: Well, it’s certainly a sharp increase in repression given how little was seemingly at stake. But on the other hand, it does bear a lot of similarities with what happened in 2012 when there were a lot of protests around Putin’s inauguration, and that was not really an attempt to stop it happening or it didn’t really pose a real threat. But the police really did crack down on the protesters very hard, a real sort of intensive legal persecution of the protestors, a lot of them sentenced to very lengthy jail terms. And eventually many of those people were amnestied in 2013, 2014.

But a lot of the kind of legal apparatus and the strength of the repression that we’re seeing now, there’s a great resemblance to 2012. One of the things that suggests is that this current emergency is being handled from the top, from the Kremlin, rather than by the Moscow city authorities. There’s one reading I’ve seen of that within the Russian media, is that that this is being directly run by the Kremlin, because it’s seen as now having crossed the threshold of importance for them. So while I’d say it does mark an uptick in repression, it’s not a completely new set of strategies and not unseen within the last few years in Russia.

GREG WILPERT: What about the argument that Russia is suffering economically at the moment, particularly the sanctions seem to have had some effect, and there’s other developments on the horizon that Russia previously did not have to deal with, particularly when the price of oil was very high. Now the price of oil has gone down. Is that a factor in all this?

TONY WOOD: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a real sense that Putin, obviously you mentioned his long dominance of Russian politics, and for most of the 2000s, obviously he came in 1999 as prime minister and then president 2000 to 2008, and then once again as president since 2012. From about half of that time he’s been effectively in power, from 2000 to 2008, there were rising oil prices. It was a time of improving outlook for a lot of Russians at the sort of day-to-day level. Now since the global economic crisis, but especially since 2014 with the impact of sanctions and stagnant oil prices, his promise that he would make things on average better for a lot of Russians, that has really proven hollow.

And so people are seeing stagnating incomes, and a lot of the inequality that Russia has suffered from throughout his tenure has become more glaring to people. And this, for example, is why the theme of corruption is such a strong motivating factor for people who protest, that they see there are plenty of government officials and local bureaucrats who are doing very, very well while everyone else is really suffering from what is a fairly stagnant economy and a lot of continuing deprivation, I think, so that’s definitely a factor, I would say.

GREG WILPERT: And how has the West’s obsession with Russia, that is, as a threat to the West, particularly that perspective of the Democrats and the US foreign policy establishment, how has that played into Putin’s hands?

TONY WOOD: Yeah, it’s interesting how this plays out. I think on the one hand, certainly the Western media obsession with Putin and the attacks on him as some sort of omnipotent kind of puppet master figure, very much play into Putin’s hands, because they reaffirm his centrality to Russian political life and they increase the feeling in Russia that he is indispensable, that it’s very hard to imagine this system continuing to function without him.

But on the other hand, there’s a flip side to that, which is that by the same token, it is very hard for this system to imagine itself functioning without him. And so preserving his rule becomes something that they have to secure at all costs. So I think this is one reason why we’re seeing the nervousness around any threat, however minimal, that they have to stamp it out, even at the most mundane local level, in case it turns into something larger and more systemic.

And so what a lot of what we’re seeing now, the agitation in Russia, is really not to do with any immediate challenge to Putin or threat that Navalny might pose right now. But everyone is now thinking with one eye on the end of Putin’s current presidential term, which is not until 2024. So the question really is, what kind of successor is there going to be? What kind of mechanism will be put in place? Will Putin even find some way of remaining in power himself, or is it possible that somehow the system will run out of steam, in which case a challenge to the system from outside, from someone who has not previously been allowed to take part, might then be more attractive to the population as a whole. And so these dynamics and this uncertainty, there is this sort of strange temporal lag where everyone is thinking already five years ahead. But that is the horizon that a lot of people are thinking about, certainly within the Russian elite right now.

GREG WILPERT: But what do you think about Trump’s approach towards Russia and towards Putin? I mean as seeing him as being not a threat. Does that have an effect in terms of the internal dynamics in Russia, and what kind of an effect?

TONY WOOD: Yeah, I think this, again, it’s hard to tell how that has played out. I think within Russia itself there wasn’t really an assumption that Trump would win. I think even among the people who did do some of the electoral interfering in the US, I don’t think they genuinely thought Trump would win. So I think certainly Trump’s presidency so far has been a rolling crisis for Russia, where relations with the US get worse and worse because of the kind of general climate of suspicion of Russia. The Trump administration has actually hardened sanctions on Russia, or Congress has hardened sanctions on Russia, and US policy has also been quite negative for Russia in a number of respects. The Trump administration has agreed to arm Ukrainian government forces, lethal assistance, which was something that the Obama administration stopped short of, for example.

And then there’s also the withdrawal from the nuclear missile treaties. I think there’s a series of setbacks for Russia, really, on the foreign policy front that have taken place under the Trump administration. So from Russia’s point of view, really this has been a series of failures for them. I think what the Russians have been trying to do is to put things on a more stable footing with the Trump administration but with a view to having good relations with whoever comes beyond that, and I think that is looking increasingly difficult for them and very unlikely. So I think they’re currently clutching at any possibility for normalization they can see, but I think it’s going to be a very long road back for them.

GREG WILPERT: Yes. I think that’s actually a very important point to make, as of course that what appears to be a coziness between Trump and Putin seems to be mostly show, because the actual policies go in a very different direction. I think that’s really an important thing to keep in mind. But we’re going to leave it there for now. I am speaking to Tony Wood, author of the book Russia Without Putin. Thanks again, Tony, for having joined us today.

TONY WOOD: Thanks for having me on, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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