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Jailed Russian opposition leader is moved to penal colony above the Arctic Circle

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Associates of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny lost track of him for nearly three weeks before he resurfaced on Christmas Day. Navalny had been imprisoned just a few hours outside of Moscow, but he was moved to a penal colony above the Arctic Circle. We reached Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician and economic adviser to Navalny. I asked Milov how they managed to find him.

VLADIMIR MILOV: Well, that was a long and tedious process. His legal team actually were sending formal inquiries. I now understand that they did so regarding over 600 of the Russian different detention facilities across the country. So they received some formal replies, and, actually, at some point they were able to locate him in this remote penal colony in the Arctic. So, as a matter of fact, there are very few detention centers of that sort. So they were really suspecting that he might be somewhere there, and they located him.

KHALID: Yeah. And we now have word, also, on some of his social media accounts, a sort of letter description of what his situation has been like these past few weeks.

MILOV: Yes. He was visited by an attorney, as a matter of fact, in this new penal colony. And the attorney conveyed a personal New Year's message from Navalny, which was he's more or less all right and in good spirits.

KHALID: He did seem to have, I think, a bit of humor in that letter, at least the translation of it that I had seen.

MILOV: That's the only way to deal with all this harshness. You know, he spent many long terms in detention all over the past decades, so he's actually quite familiar with all the circumstances.

KHALID: You know, Navalny disappeared around the same time that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he will be seeking a fifth term. He's planning to run for reelection next year. How do you make sense of that timing?

MILOV: It's no coincidence to me because Putin loves all these kind of symbolic gestures that demonstrate that he is the boss; he calls the shots. And that's a pretty clear signal that he would want to enter a new presidential term through intimidation, repression, more pressure on the society. And so this is how Putin is supposed to run his presidential campaign and enter the new term.

KHALID: Because Putin's sees Navalny as a potential threat?

MILOV: Putin is well aware that the Russian society, in a large part of it, is strongly against him. There's definitely no love between Putin and the Russian society. People are just scared, very much afraid about their own lives and security and so on. This is why they don't speak up. There's this constant fear in the Kremlin that at some point, people will say, enough is enough, and they will begin to speak up.

KHALID: It seems essentially certain that Putin will win a fifth term during the elections coming up this March. And I look at someone like you, you're living in political exile in Lithuania. Alexei Navalny is in prison - right? - being sent to this new penal camp in the Arctic Circle. You all have sacrificed so much, and yet it seems certain that Putin will win reelection. So help us understand what you all are trying to do with the opposition movement.

MILOV: We try to first focus on talking to the Russian people and broadcasting because political activity is effectively prohibited on the ground in my country. But what we can do is we can maintain the spirit of resistance. We can keep the people informed. So we try to maintain connection. We try to talk to people and prepare them for better days, for the situation when they will be able to come and speak up against the government. I compared this with the last totally controlled Soviet elections of 1984. It was like, on surface, total calm, 99.95% for the Communist Party. But just couple of years down the road, we were already standing on the streets with slogans - down with the communists. So if you recall Russian history, things can unravel pretty fast. So we try to maintain a degree of this underground resistance.

KHALID: That's Vladimir Milov. He's the economic adviser to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He joined us via Skype. Thank you so much.

MILOV: Thank you. It was a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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