JUDY WOODRUFF: To Russia, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president in this coming Sunday's election, said his enemies were planning dirty tricks, including ballot stuffing and even murder, in an attempt to mar the vote's outcome.
Our Margaret Warner is in Moscow, and she spoke with one of Russia's leading activists.
MARGARET WARNER: The world was shocked the first week of December, when thousands of Russians took to the streets protesting what they charged was fraud in weekend parliamentary elections, among the leaders, 35-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. He coined the now popular description of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party as the party of crooks and thieves.
Navalny and others were arrested on the first day of those demonstrations, but, by Christmas Eve, he was out and speaking to an even bigger anti-Putin rally.
All this has brought white-hot focus on this coming Sunday's presidential election, as Putin seeks to reclaim the top office. Though polls show Navalny is the most popular of the opposition figures, he's not on the ballot. But he stayed active, with a campaign branding Putin as a corrupt autocrat with his widely read LiveJournal blog of government corruption exposes and with a new project to enlist volunteers to monitor polling places this Sunday.
I spoke with Alexei Navalny at his office in Moscow.
Alexei Navalny, thank you for joining us.
You were at a rally in St. Petersburg on Saturday, and you said, these are not elections. This is the reappointment of Putin.
What did you mean?
ALEXEI NAVALNY, opposition activist (through translator): Literally, it means what I said. This is not an election. This procedure is aimed at only one thing, the appointment of Prime Minister Putin once again the president, seemingly for life.
MARGARET WARNER: For life? It's just a six-year term.
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Putin has been in power since '99, from the moment when he was appointed acting prime minister by Boris Yeltsin. Now, formally, he's not the president, but in fact he's a kind of a czar, an autocrat.
Unfortunately, he cannot imagine for himself another way of existence. All these ghosts of Gadhafi are haunting him, and he knows that either he will be the president or something unfortunate will happen to him.
MARGARET WARNER: Still, what does it say about Russian society, do you think, that you've had this incredible opposition movement arise in, at least publicly, just three months?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Six months ago, if you had asked me whether this would happen in three months, I would have been very skeptical about it.
Nevertheless, it happened suddenly. And it wasn't organized by the Russian opposition. Putin did this. People took to the streets in their protest to an open and public humiliation, which was impossible to endure, to Vladimir Putin having falsified the election so obviously that it was impossible to ignore.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there an irony here that in fact the 12 years of Putin and the economic growth that has occurred has helped create the very class that now wants to get rid of him?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Putin claims credit for economic growth and arguing that, after the collapse of the '90s, now we have seen for 12 years the so-called Putin stability.
However, simply comparing Russia with neighboring countries, we see that other former Soviet Union countries grew even stronger. So Putin's time is a time of lost opportunities. Russia had and still has enormous oil, gas, and other energy resources, and prices are very high.
Yes, part of this money remained in the country and led to the creation of the middle class, which now tries to get rid of Putin because they understand that most of the money was simply stolen by him and his friends.
MARGARET WARNER: So, what have you achieved with this so far, I mean, even if, as you say, it's a foregone conclusion that Putin will win?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): We see that Putin and Medvedev have already announced some political reforms. And we have realized that there is no huge gap between the political activists and the public.
Thousands of people came out to the streets, and we found that in Russia there is this critical mass of people that just will not allow Vladimir Putin to treat them as he has for the last 12 years.
MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Putin and his party, the Kremlin, have all accused the West of being behind protest movements, of being behind you, specifically, the U.S., the State Department, the CIA. What do you say to that?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): I'm quite an ordinary citizen who lives on the outskirts of Moscow. My children go to a regular Moscow school and kindergarten. My life is completely transparent, which is absolutely not the case for Putin's officials, whose children live abroad, who have accounts in Switzerland, the United States and Great Britain.
So the question arises, who is more connected with the West, the opposition or Russian corrupt ruling class?
MARGARET WARNER: So when Sunday happens, and if the results are as everyone expects, are you prepared to accept them?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Since we do not recognize the election, we will not recognize the election results. We are quite clear that on March 5, Putin will declare himself the president of Russia. In fact, he would call himself a czar and an emperor.
We will not accept this, and we will continue to demand political reforms, new parliamentary elections within a year, and new presidential elections within two years.
MARGARET WARNER: So, does that mean returning to the street?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): The Russian opposition groups have already stated that they will encourage people to go to the streets on March 5 and beyond.
I do not know what the scale of the protest will be, but the fact that it will continue is quite obvious. It doesn't matter how they count the votes, because all candidates should have been able to participate in the elections.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying the protest movement just stays out in the streets, or do you have to form a political party yourself and get into the process?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): We should build up our political protests to force him to declare new elections. Our goal is very simple, and it allows us to unite against this opponent.
We want very simple things: political reform and new elections. Political reform means that all those who previously were not allowed to take part in the elections must be approved.
MARGARET WARNER: If he were to listen to what you're saying and to what people in the street are saying, how would you want him to govern differently in the next six years? Is there a scenario in which he could actually lead reform?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): I believe that such a scenario exists. And I think that Putin, even though he's a very corrupted politician, a greedy politician and a very power-hungry politician, he's a smart, flexible person.
And if he makes certain changes, we will be able to carry out that peaceful transition of power, avoid any violence and guarantee freedom and security for Vladimir Putin. He should take a risk and go for competitive elections.
MARGARET WARNER: You said something about guaranteeing his own safety. Do you mean his safety from prosecution?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Yes, of course.
Now, we have a lot of evidence that Vladimir Putin and his team were personally involved in criminal acts. And, of course, he should be prosecuted. In this regard, there is consensus in the opposition, for the sake of peaceful transfer of power in the country, Vladimir Putin personally and his family should get some kind of freedom guarantees.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that he could institute reforms and also weed out corruption from within his system?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Unfortunately, this is impossible because corruption has become the core on which he built his political power.
In his opinion, corruption is a very efficient way of management. For him, there is no problem of his ministers being billionaires. There is no problem in his governance being so corrupt that everybody in the country knows about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, if he takes the other course, he wins 60 percent of the vote and he decides to just clamp down and continue business as usual, then what?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): One hundred thousand people in the streets of Moscow. Of course, he can try to quell the protests by force.
But remember that this scenario, the so-called power scenario, was attempted on Dec. 5 last year, when hundreds of people were arrested, including me, as well as on Dec. 6, when hundreds of people were beaten. But the result was that hundreds of thousands more people took to the streets.
MARGARET WARNER: And are you prepared to lead those protests as far as they need to go?
ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: Alexei Navalny, thank you so much.