Vladimir Putin's regime is "running out of fuel," and if the Russian president continues to burn through his reserves of oil and gas money, ordinary people will become a threat to his power, according to one outspoken activist.

Aleksei Miniailo is a Russian opposition activist based in Moscow who argues that Putin's grip on power is less steadfast than it seems.

In an article for Foreign Affairs in December headlined, "Don't Give Up on a Better Russia," Miniailo makes the case that there are groups in the country that want a more democratic future.

This week, in the wake of the death of prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Miniailo tells All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly that democracy is still achievable for Russia, and that Putin's crackdown on dissent won't change that.

"As much as it is dramatic — or even tragic, as in case with Alexei's assassination — it is not unexpected, not something that turns the table," he said.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: What went through your mind when you heard the news of Navalny's death?

Aleksei Miniailo: I just couldn't believe it. I thought someone hacked the website of this penitentiary and just posted fake news.

It was pretty hard, actually, because Navalny is a very important symbolic figure. I mean, besides any human feelings about other human beings dying — being murdered, actually — Navalny is very important for many of us.

Kelly: So the title of this article that you've written is, "Don't Give Up on a Better Russia." Do you still feel that even after the events of last week, even after Navalny's death?

Miniailo: Yes, of course. As much as leaders are important, democracy depends on regular people, on ordinary people, not just on super big figures, on symbolic figures, and on leaders of political parties or of opposition.

If we would say that, "Navalny died, so now there will be no democracy in Russia," that means that all our job was futile, and all that Alexei did was futile. But it is not so. Because one thing that Alexei did very well, he introduced a lot of people into politics. And he, for a very long time, was not some sort of solitary figure, he raised a lot of prominent political figures.

And he was always empowering the audience. When we are talking about the chance that Russia might become democratic, such figures are very, very important. But ultimately, it all depends on the people.

Kelly: I will note you have spent time in prison. You've been arrested, you've been held for your opposition work. Obviously, that has not deterred you. You're still speaking out. How hard an argument is that to make today to other people in Russia, to hold strong, keep fighting?

Miniailo: It's not easy, but that's when the personal example works. He set a personal example that a person of liberal convictions, a person of oppositional convictions can risk his life, can put his freedom on the line, put his life on the line, to stand up for what he believes in, to stand up for a better Russia.

I'm not saying that everyone should do this, but definitely such examples are very important, because they empower us to become better versions of ourselves and ultimately to to do more for democratization of Russia.

Kelly: This past weekend saw hundreds of people in Russia arrested, detained for protesting or simply for coming out to mourn Navalny. This has prompted fears of perhaps an even more severe crackdown before presidential elections there in Russia next month. Does it cause you in any way to rethink your belief that a better Russia is possible?

Miniailo: This is all expected. Of course, it is hard. But we knew that such things would come to be, and that Putin will kill more of his opponents, that more repression will follow for some time before the regime weakens. It all happens. It all might happen further.

And maybe in a year when you reach out to talk with me about something else, you won't be able to, because I will be in prison or saw something else might happen. But that doesn't change the big situation, that the regime is running out of fuel. They don't have one thing that empires have, which is a civilizational vision of the future, how the society might work, how the society might improve the lives of the people within the empire.

So Putin has none of it. He has an imperial vision. He represents a small group of people stealing wealth from anyone else.

That is not something that can be supported by the wide audience indefinitely. And now he is running out of steam, for more than 20 years.

Kelly: Explain that, when you say he's running out of steam.

Miniailo: For 20 years, he was stashing this surplus income from selling the gas and the oil — it's called the fund of national wealth.

So for two years it was spending around $50-$60 billion from this fund. And if this continues to the end of this year, he will run out of these extra funds. So he will have a very hard time after that financing the war and financing his repressions, which he will, of course, continue at the expense of the people.

And the harsh truth is that most of Putin's reign, ordinary people were getting better and better lives because of this oil excess money. But for some time the economy is stagnating and the economy is not adapting. They are not fighting all these problems within the economy, they are just pouring money in there and solving the problems with excess money.

But when he runs out of money, you will have much harder time solving these problems, which will lead to more and more people being unhappy with their regime, and that will impose a more severe threat to his power than activists laying flowers to commemorate Navalny and Boris Nemtsov.

Kelly: I want to ask about you. You are speaking to me from Moscow. You're speaking very critically of Vladimir Putin and his role. How dangerous is that?

Miniailo: I don't know. We'll see. I'm not saying everything I believe. I somehow censor myself, but every time I'm saying something, I'm thinking, "What will be the result? Will it change anything for the better?" And then somehow try to weigh the risks as well.

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