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Navalny Announces Hunger Strike To Protest Prison Conditions

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny says he's going on hunger strike to protest what he says is an inability to access medical care. After surviving a poisoning attempt by the Russian government last August, Navalny was jailed by the Russian authorities in February. The move sparked huge protests in Moscow calling for his release. But with deteriorating health, what's next for the activist and his movement? Julia Ioffe is a correspondent with GQ magazine, and she has been following the Navalny case. Hello.

JULIA IOFFE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As best as we know, what's Navalny condition in prison?

IOFFE: Well, really, all we know is what he has told us through his lawyers and his social media posts, which is that he is having increasingly sharp pains in his back and that he is starting to lose feeling in both of his legs. We know that prison authorities have taken him to a hospital - a prison hospital where they did an MRI. Nobody has seen the results of it. And he got two pills of ibuprofen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, he announced he's going on a hunger strike. What is the significance of that, in your view?

IOFFE: It's really significant because, as his associates have pointed out and people who know him well have told me is - when he was a free man and not in jail, this was something he could never understand. He could never understand why people went on hunger strike. And now he says he sees the logic of it, which is that you're totally at the mercy of the prison authorities and the government, and this is really your only leverage - you know, threatening to basically kill yourself if you don't get what you want.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, he is the most prominent opposition leader in Russia. But after he was poisoned, he got treatment in Germany. And then he chose to return to Russia, where he was promptly arrested. Why didn't he stay outside of the country?

IOFFE: If you're not in Russia and you claim to be an opposition politician, it's not real. People in Russia don't take you seriously if you're not there with them experiencing the realities of Putin's justice system and the corruption in Russia and the deteriorating economic reality. People won't take you seriously. You know, he had several chances to live abroad, and he never wanted to. He feels Russia is his home, and he wants to make Russia better. He sees no reason to live somewhere else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Julia, what's the Kremlin's calculation, then, in jailing him and keeping him in the condition he's in?

IOFFE: I think the calculus is to basically decapitate the movement. You know, people call him the leading opposition or the most prominent opposition leader in Russia, but, really, he's the only opposition leader in Russia. And he's the only one who's developed this extensive network of activists and election offices in cities. The real calculation, though, is in September, Russia has parliamentary elections coming up. And even though those are very tightly engineered by the Kremlin, Navalny has figured out a way to kind of short circuit them with a program called smart voting, where people sign up. And at the very last minute so that the Kremlin doesn't have a chance to tinker with the ballot, he tells people who to vote for. And it really messes up the Kremlin's tight engineering of the election, so I think they wanted him out of the game. There aren't real consequences for them when they do that. It's all upside, really.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what do you think will happen next for Navalny? I mean, if that is the calculation - that there is only an upside for the Kremlin and that they can really decapitate a movement - then where do you think this is headed?

IOFFE: From my conversations with people in Moscow, it seems like things are headed in a far worse direction. I think everybody who's in the Kremlin and Kremlin-adjacent increasingly sees it as a fight for their lives, that it's an existential battle for them, that it's either us or them. And that personally makes me very worried because it's kind of what you saw in a place like Syria, right? You can't give the other side an inch because you feel like they're going to kill you if you don't kill them. So it seems like Russia is entering yet another phase of even more entrenched opposition and an even more entrenched Kremlin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julia Ioffe is a correspondent with GQ magazine. Thank you very much.

IOFFE: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.