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Exploring Alexei Navalny's Journey To Becoming A Symbol Against Russian Corruption

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The arrest of Alexei Navalny sparked protests across Russia last weekend as people called for his release.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SIMON: More protests are called for this weekend. And while Mr. Navalny, who survived a Kremlin assassination attempt last year, is an anti-corruption hero, his views, like those of many of his supporters, are complex. While they push for government transparency, they also hold some anti-immigrant and ethnonationalist views.

We're joined now by Julia Davis, a Russian media and disinformation expert at the Atlantic Council and columnist at The Daily Beast. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIA DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me again.

SIMON: We have become familiar with the image of Alexei Navalny in recent days - charismatic, brave. But tell us where he has come from politically because there's a time he was very popular with Russia's ethnonationalists.

DAVIS: He still has nationalist leanings. And no one could say that he is in perfect alignment with all of the Western values. But there again, that's not what he aims to represent. What he mainly represents is the possibility that the Russians might be the ones to decide who gets to lead Russia.

SIMON: Well, tell us a little bit more about his track record and if he's revised it in recent years - things he's said about Chechnya and Crimea, for example.

DAVIS: He supported the annexation of Crimea, unfortunately. And he also does have some nationalist leanings. He is evolving in many respects. And one of the things that's so unique about him is that he refuses to fear Putin.

SIMON: How are some of the supporters in what's become a pro-Navalny coalition? How comfortable are they with some of what Alexei Navalny represents in his nationalist views?

DAVIS: I have seen some of them have a problem with it. Unfortunately, nationalist and racist rhetoric is very commonplace in Russia, so that hasn't been something that really stood in his way. And it's not dissimilar from a lot of issues that we're seeing with Trump supporters in the United States - the fear of immigrants and the fear of other people that are coming and supposedly taking our jobs. So it's similar in that way.

SIMON: When did he begin to become part of what we would now call the opposition?

DAVIS: It went on for years, and he has been an opposition leader. Then Putin arrested him for alleged corruption, which is really a classic game of what about his actions instead of addressing Putin's own corruption. And therefore, Putin was able to prevent Navalny from running for president, which has been his long-term ambition, just by filing bogus criminal charges against him.

And Putin is now in a no-win situation. If he kills Navalny in the prison, then he becomes a martyr, and it would be impossible to deny who's responsible for that. And if Navalny is allowed to continue to function, he will continue to be a thorn in Putin's side.

SIMON: What does Alexei Navalny stand for in addition to not being Vladimir Putin?

DAVIS: He positioned himself as, first and foremost, an anti-corruption activist who's determined to change the system in Russia, where, unlike Putin's system, where his cronies and fellow oligarchs are robbing Russia blind, to where it would have a government that is accountable to the people and the corruption and out-of-control stealing would be stopped.

SIMON: How is Russian state media and the Kremlin presenting the protests - or are they?

DAVIS: They're really cracking down hard on them, and they're actually going so far as to charge parents of minors that participated in demonstrations - charging their parents criminally. They're really going above and beyond because in this protest, there was something that was very uncharacteristic for protest in Russia. You could see real defiance. So they're desperately trying to portray the demonstrations as being very small, which, in fact, they were very large and went across Russia. So they're just trying to portray the demonstrators as a small group of people that have been misled by Navalny and trying to quiet everything down that way.

SIMON: Julia Davis is a Russian media expert. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVIS: Thank you so much, Scott. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.