Leonid Volkov wears a white shirt and raises his hand in the air while speaking in front of a blue and white background.

'Fighting corruption in Russia is now being called extremism,' says Alexei Navalny's top strategist

Leonid Volkov joins The World from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to give an update on Alexei Navalny's health status and the future of their political opposition movement in Russia, after being designated as "extremists."

The World

Alexei Navalny, Vladmir Putin's best-known nemesis, has become something of a household name in Russia.

For almost three months now, the Russian opposition leader has been in prison. Navalny was arrested upon his return to Moscow in January from Germany, where he was receiving medical treatment after surviving Novichok poisoning

Today, there's been another turn in the Kremlin's anti-Navalny crackdown: Prosecutors labeled Navalny's movement an "extremist" organization. 

Russian authorities on Monday ordered the offices of Navalny to suspend their activities, pending a court ruling on whether they should be outlawed as an extremist group. The label would make their activities illegal, and expose members and supporters to lengthy prison terms, according to human rights advocates. 

Related: Russia expels Western diplomats over Navalny rally

The person left holding up the organization in Navalny's absence is Leonid Volkov, Navalny's chief of staff.

Volkov told The World's host Marco Werman that Navalny is slowly recovering after a 24-day hunger strike to demand medical treatment. He was recently moved to a prison hospital. 

Related: Navalny's health warrants 'justified, grave concern,' says adviser

Last week, it was announced that Navalny will be awarded the 2021 Geneva Summit Courage Award.

Volkov joined The World from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to give an update on Navalny and the future of their political opposition movement in Russia.

Related: Pro-Navalny protesters clash with Russian police

Marco Werman: Navalny's organization, which you are a crucial part of, has satellite offices all across Russia. Yesterday, you said your organization is shutting them all down. Why is that? 

Leonid Volkov: It's because we have been labeled as an extremist organization, which we, of course, are not. But, well, fighting corruption in Russia is now being called "extremism." So, being a member of an organization which is officially recognized as extremist might lead to up to six years in prison. So, it was done for the safety of our employees, of the members of the organizations, that we have officially dissolved it. But we, of course, didn't close shop.

Instead of having one centralized organization with regional offices, we announced that all our regional offices will now be on their own as independent, regional political organizations. Well, not all of them probably will be able to survive. It's quite a challenge to be an independent, regional political organization in Russia. But many of them, I'm sure, will. So, Putin killing one enemy has created 30 new enemies. 

In 2019, I visited one of the Navalny local offices in Nizhny Novgorod, 300 miles east of Moscow. I spoke with some of the activists there. And there's a moment that really stood out to me, a sense of what Navalny means for these young Russian activists. This is activist Dmitry Kalentiev: "Alexei Navalny, for me, is like future. He gives me future. There is no other person who does the same. I would like to see other people, but for now it's primarily him. It's great that we have at least one person who does that much." We can hear in Dmitry's comments what a driving force Navalny is for so many people. Can the movement survive without Navalny, this charismatic leader? 

I'm absolutely sure the movement will survive and will grow and will prevail. We are historically designated to win because, I mean, this is a generational change. We see that we are gaining and Putin is losing, like, younger people are much more supportive of Navalny and his approval ratings among younger Russian voters is higher, as in Putin's. And now, he's even more of a moral leader, a symbol for the protest. After all these stories about his poisoning and his return and his unlawful arrest. So, I'm pretty sure we'll manage to survive also in these conditions. But of course, this will be quite challenging. 

I know you're in Lithuania. Perhaps the stakes are less high there for you, but how worried are you that your colleagues, or if you go back, will be arrested and face prison time, like Navalny?

Well, I already can't count all criminal charges brought against me. I think there are four or five. So, of course, I mean, if I'm going back to Russia or any of my colleagues here in Lithuania, we will face also very lengthy prison terms. It's essential that some of our members of our organization stay abroad to organize for this, to manage the organization and to be in relative safety. There is, of course, no absolute safety, we will have to move more of [the] intellectual center of our organization to a different country. But of course, our strength is millions of supporters and donors inside the country, and we'll fight for them.

Even while Navalny has been in prison, your organization clearly has a muscle to organize massive street protests. Just last week, tens of thousands came out in the streets to support Navalny. We should note, though, that close to 2,000 people were arrested and many were beaten. How does that weigh on you, Leonid? Do you take responsibility for those arrests and that violence in any way? 

No. The responsibility for arrests and the violence is completely on the government. This is peaceful protest. Never [was there] any single act of violence from the protesters, only from the government, only from the police. And when the police decides not to intervene, everything is absolutely peaceful and smooth, so I deny any responsibility here and it's very important not to blame the victim.

And yet, your critics say that you're putting people in danger by calling on them to protest. So, what's your reaction to that? 

This is dirty propaganda stunts. I mean, when all threat comes only from Putin's armed policemen, then they are the only [ones] who are putting people in danger. Just don't beat people and people will not be in danger.

Let's return to the extremist designation on your movement from the Kremlin. According to reports, anyone associated with Navalny's organization, including donors, may soon face real persecution, including prison time. Many of those donor lists are now public. How can you carry on without financial support?

We will move the focus of crowdfunding to Russian expats, to the huge Russian diaspora abroad. We'll definitely do a lot of fundraising among Russian software developers in Silicon Valley and Russian entrepreneurs in Berlin, or Amsterdam. Still, we'll create ways for those who want to support us from inside the country in a safe way, using cryptocurrencies and other safe tools. 

You do sound optimistic about the future, but I have to say, Navalny and anyone associated with them, like you, it seems, has a dark future in a Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Why are you in this fight?

First of all, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I would not be an optimist. Otherwise, it would be impossible to carry on to survive. Second, the bigger picture is that we are winning this fight. It's going to to be a long fight, but if we consider the broader perspective of last 10 years, this may be 50,000 supporters. Now we have many millions of them. And among younger generations, Navalny is now much more popular than Putin, and the clock is ticking in our favor. Putin could close all Navalny offices. This will not help him with the fact that the household income in Russia decreases for eight straight years in a row now. Putin could, I don't know, destroy our offices physically. It will not help him to fight corruption. And of course, nothing could help Putin with the fact that he's now 22 years [in] power. So historically, all the fundamental reasons for protest, all the reasons for Putin's growing disapproval are there. They will not be gone. It is true that Putin still can be holding power for maybe five or 10 years. We have to be patient. We have to work hard. We have to build up our organization. We'll keep doing this. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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