Navalny aides vow to keep up the fight from exile
Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation is intent on keeping up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and keeping their jailed leader alive, despite being declared an "extremist" enterprise and their staff forced into exile.
What they're saying: "We have a slogan that Putin has to regret that he pushed us out of the country," said Leonid Volkov, Navalny's top adviser.
- Exile is both painful and liberating. Now operating out of Vilnius, Lithuania, Volkov said he's no longer in and out of prison and no longer has to worry that any equipment the foundation purchases will be confiscated by Russian authorities.
- "It's a matter of principle" to show that they are "just as strong without Navalny next to us" and wouldn't stop even if he were killed, said Maria Pevchikh, head of the foundation's investigative unit, which produced the "Putin’s Palace" investigation that generated 120 million views on YouTube. There's more where that came from, she said.
- Plus, with additional time on his hands, Navalny is coming up with too many "brilliant" ideas for new projects for his team to even keep up with, Volkov quipped. They communicate through his lawyers.
Setting the scene: Volkov and Pevchikh spoke to a small group of reporters over dinner on Wednesday night at an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.
- They were in town for meetings with the administration and on Capitol Hill, to push Congress to finalize sanctions Navalny proposed on 35 key Putin associates, and for Volkov to testify at a congressional hearing Thursday on kleptocracy.
- They also want to keep Navalny's name in the political and media discourse to increase the pressure on Putin to release him, or at least decrease the odds of another assassination attempt.
- Both Volkov and Pevchikh said they were certain he would return. But did they know he'd be arrested?
- "We didn't know and we were sure at the same time," Pevchikh said. Volkov noted that he and Navalny spent four days in Germany game-planning how the organization would function if Navalny were jailed.
- Pevchikh became the subject of wild conspiracy theories from the Kremlin propaganda machine after Navalny's poisoning, including that she had staged the whole thing on behalf of the United Kingdom's MI6 spy agency. Now their former colleagues who remain in Russia face the threat of retrospective arrests.
The bottom line: "Everyone understands that his sentence is a life sentence," Volkov said. "The question is whose life."