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Russian Opposition Leader Aims To Build Movement


There's a man in Russia who's doing something no Russian politician has done in a long time. Alexei Navalny is running a national political campaign based on grassroots enthusiasm rather than backroom Kremlin deals. As he prepares his bid in next year's presidential election, Navalny is traveling all over Russia. NPR's Lucian Kim caught up with him on the campaign trail.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: "Hi, hi, hello," says Alexei Navalny as he shakes hands with every volunteer who walks into his new campaign office in Tula, the center of Russia's gun industry, 100 miles south of Moscow.


KIM: The volunteers, mostly 20-something and male, can barely contain their admiration for Navalny, who started as an anti-corruption blogger and now is using the internet to launch his presidential campaign. He wants to challenge President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to run for a fourth term.

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "It can't be that a country that's swimming in petrodollars holds its population in poverty," Navalny says. "It means they've made off with the money."

Gaping income disparity, greedy officials and potholed roads are all things that make ordinary Russians angry, and Navalny hammers away at them. He then takes questions on everything from the army draft - he'd abolish it - to LGBT rights. He says people's private lives are nobody else's business.

Alexei Makarkin, a Moscow political analyst, says the last politician who ran the same kind of grassroots campaign and evoked the same enthusiasm was Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president 25 years ago.

ALEXEI MAKARKIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Makarkin says the chances of the Kremlin letting Navalny run as a presidential candidate are close to zero, but that the opposition leader's real goal is to build a broad base of support he can use as a political tool later if social discontent grows.

ANTON KONDAKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Anton Kondakov, a 27-year-old Navalny volunteer in Tula, says five years ago, nobody talked about politics, but now Russia's sluggish economy is forcing even Putin supporters to change their minds. He says people are spending 70 percent of their income on food.

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: A few hours later, Navalny is addressing another crowd, this time in Kaluga, a town with a big Volkswagen plant 60 miles west of Tula.

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: His message is the same; we can change Russia, but you need to go out and protest against corruption on June 12. That's when Navalny wants to show the Kremlin how much clout he wields in Russia's provinces.

The crowd here is smaller but just as enthusiastic.

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: There's a girl who's wearing a homemade T-shirt with Navalny's face on it above the English word hope. There's a high school student whose parents are convinced Navalny is an American agent, and there's 22-year-old college student Yevgeny Zhazhin.

YEVGENY ZHAZHIN: No matter how dark things seem in our country, they are changeable. And I can do something to change the way things are going now.

KIM: Still, he admits there's an element of fear.

ZHAZIN: And of course, I'm afraid a little because it's hard to be all brave in our country because things can happen.

KIM: Zhazhin says he hasn't even told his parents that he's now running Nalvalny's Kaluga office. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kaluga, Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.