GAZETTE: How is Navalny’s prosecution viewed by ordinary Russians?
VACROUX: I don’t think anyone thinks it’s legitimate. Even people who thinks it’s a good way to get rid of him don’t think it’s legitimate. [French firm] Yves Rocher has come out and said, “We don’t think they took anything from us.” They said that a long time ago. The accusation is that he didn’t check in; he just vanished when he was in Germany after he was discharged from the hospital. There are documents that show he sent a note to the probation officer. They knew where he was, but he’s accused of not telling them where he was.
GAZETTE: In his courtroom speech, Navalny said his prosecution was not a show of the Kremlin’s strength but a sign of its weakness designed only to intimidate the public. Is he right?
VACROUX: He’s right in the sense that it shows you that the law is completely arbitrarily applied. If the Kremlin wants to get rid of you, they’ll get rid of you regardless of whether you’ve done something wrong or not. It’s easy enough to cook up some charges and throw you in jail. This isn’t news to anybody. But this is just a very noisy example of that.
GAZETTE: Will his imprisonment cool the protests, as Putin intends, or will it ratchet them up, as Navalny believes?
VACROUX: I think eventually the protests are going to die down. They’re going to be crushed with force in the same way that we saw in Belarus. But, in a way, that’s not the point. The point is that these people did come out. They did know that it was very dangerous. You have people getting arrested who were never arrested before, like university professors and journalists who deliberately left their credentials at home because they’re there as private citizens. Especially in winter, it’s very difficult to keep this level of protest up and it’s very difficult for nonviolent protest to be successful. It’s not what topples regimes. And so far, it looks like the Putin regime is basically willing to do anything except shoot. Eventually, they’ll get the upper hand. The thing that’s really important is how the elite is going to react to what has happened. First, to the fact that however [they] have managed to hide [their] assets, eventually someone is going to figure it out. It’s never completely hidden, and it could be made public, and it’s not safe. Second, is Putin going to lose legitimacy to the point where he can’t hold the system together? And if that’s true, it’s time to find a new patron quickly. What we see in these authoritarian regimes is that the whole thing hangs together until it falls apart, and then it suddenly falls apart, and then they’re rats jumping off the sinking ship. So it looks like it’s very solid, and indeed there’s little sign of defection, but that’s what brings it down in the end. It’s not necessarily street protests.
GAZETTE: What would it take to oust Putin?
VACROUX: It would have to take a split in the elites. That’s the only way to set off infighting that eventually removes him. And someone else becomes better able to provide the goodies that the elite have become accustomed to.
GAZETTE: Where is he weakest?
VACROUX: The fundamental problem with authoritarians is that they don’t really have popular support. They’ll say, “Of course he’s popular. He keeps winning re-election.” But you have no idea how popular he is because you don’t have free media, and you don’t have free elections. The fact that he wins elections doesn’t tell you anything about how popular he is. People have no incentive to tell you what they really think. There are elections that he probably would have won. The fact that they still manipulate the results, mostly through ballot stuffing, decreases your credibility and your legitimacy rather than increasing it. That works for a while, and then all of a sudden it stops working.