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Russian opposition leader’s arrest sparks wave of national protests

Part of the conversation between President Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Tuesday centered on Russia's top opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, whose recent arrest is sparking a wave of national protests. Masha Gessen, staff writer for The New Yorker, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Part of today's call between President Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin centered on Russia's top opposition figure, Alexei Navalny.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how Navalny is sparking protests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The protests rolled across 5,000 miles and 100 cities from Yakutsk in the east, where the temperature was 60 below, to Moscow in the west, a national wave of dissent and defiance.

  • Protester (through translator):

    We are here because we are fed up with the regime in this country. Putin is a thief, and the whole system is corrupt.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Police responded with blunt force, and arrested more than 3,000 protesters. But if their brutalness was par for the course, protesters' resistance, with their hands and snowballs was a sign Russians have had it, and they're willing to defy their government more than they have in many years.

    They answered the call from opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Last week, in Moscow, after a hug from his wife, he livestreamed his arrest upon arrival from Berlin, where he'd recuperated from an attempted assassination that independent researchers say was launched by the Russian government.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    There are 20 million beggars in the country, and he buys a yacht for his mistress.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Navalny's call coincided with a new investigative video that crosses what used to be red lines, Putin's love life, and what Navalny called extravagant personal corruption in a billion-dollar palace filled with opulent rooms, and disparaging Putin as a wannabe monarch.

    The video's been viewed more than 90 million times, allowing Navalny to circumvent state-run media, and maintain massive influence. Putin almost never mentions Navalny, but, in an online forum this week, denied Navalny's charges.

  • Vladimir PutinĀ (through translator):

    Nothing of what is listed there as my property belongs or has ever belonged to me or my close relatives. Never.

  • Alexei Navalny:

    He's a kind of czar, an autocrat.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2012, our Margaret Warner interviewed Navalny with an interpreter. That's when Navalny started his campaign calling Putin's party the party of crooks and thieves. Navalny predicted Putin would end up like Moammar Gadhafi.

    We followed him again during his campaign for president in 2017.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    They tell us (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you, and we have to say, oh, OK, we're very sorry. But, no, we have gathered here to say we're going to ask these questions and we will obtain the answers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    His leadership has especially galvanized young Russians, who posted videos this weekend removing Putin portraits.

    And to discuss this moment in Russia, we turn to Masha Gessen, staff writer for "The New Yorker" and author of 11 books.

    Masha Gessen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Are these protests different from previous protests in Russia?

  • Masha Gessen:

    Yes and no.

    They are bigger. They are — it is particularly significant that they're bigger — I mean, they don't involve more cities than, for example, the protests in 2011-2012. But there is significant difference in the sense that the protests in 2011-2012 took place under much safer conditions for the protesters. They were — quote, unquote — "legal" in the eye of the — in the eyes of the state.

    And the sanctions for any kind of violations that might have committed during the protests were much lighter. In the last decade, Russia has passed a slew of laws aimed specifically at intimidating any kind of protest.

    And these protests were explicitly declared illegal by the state. So, every single person, every one of the tens of thousands of people who came out knew that they were risking arrest. It's part of a long wave of dissatisfaction, distrust, and kind of a slow-building refusal to take it anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How much of a threat are these protests to Putin?

    We have not seen what we have seen in previous examples in Russia history, and even in 2011-2012, which are the elites breaking from Putin. So, does that mean that these are not a threat to the Kremlin?

  • Masha Gessen:

    The Putin regime is a mafia state.

    Every single person in the elite is personally dependent on Putin for money and power. That's one of the reasons, for example, that they all contributed to the building of his palace, right? He has them in his grip at all times. So, we're not going to see the elites coalescing against Putin. That kind of analysis is not applicable to this kind of regime.

    Unfortunately, for the protesters, there's no — there are no levers in any existing institutions for the protesters to activate. There's no independent judiciary. There's no parliament. There are even no elites that could rise up against Putin.

    The protests, I think, are probably best, both sort of hopefully and pessimistically, viewed as an investment in Russia's post-Putin future, which will eventually happen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Navalny is playing what a colleague of yours called digital guerrilla war. He is clearly popular with younger Russians and clearly able to get a viral video out there.

    But the majority of Russia is older, politically inactive. Can Navalny reach out to the actual majority of the country?

  • Masha Gessen:

    Russia doesn't have elections. Russia doesn't have any kind of traditional media sphere that would allow a politician to reach out to a majority of the population.

    That said, Navalny has kind of hacked that predicament. In the scorch-earthed political environment of Russia, he has nonetheless been able to establish himself as a viable alternative to Putin, as a different kind of politician and a different kind of politics.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, U.S.-Russia relations.

    Biden and Putin spoke today. Biden's made it clear they're going to try and work together on issues like New START, while challenging Putin on other issues, including Navalny.

    But the Russians, meanwhile, continue to question Biden's legitimacy as president. Will Russia seek to cause more disruption in the U.S., do you think, while Biden waits for his national security team to be confirmed?

  • Masha Gessen:

    Joe Biden is the first president since the end of the Cold War who has not promised, he has not postulated as a goal any kind of normalization and improvement of relations with Russia, right?

    We know that the reality of the situation is that nothing good is going to happen in a relationship between these two countries. And Biden is not even sort of signaling that this is an ambition of his, which I think is a good sign, just because it's good to see the president telling the truth.

    Nothing good is going to come of this relationship. Is Russia going to continue to meddle in U.S. politics? If the U.S. lets them. I have never been of the school that Donald Trump was elected by Russia. I think that he was elected by Americans, and Russians were able to fortuitously sort of whip up some sentiment.

    If there are things for Russians to get involved in, if there are things for Russians to whip up, if we continue to be a divided, conflicted country, in which nearly half the population is entirely unmoored from reality, that's fertile ground.

    But that's on us. That's not on Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Masha Gessen, thank you very much.

  • Masha Gessen:

    Thank you for having me.

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