By around 4 p.m. on one hot, glaringly bright August day in Moscow, a couple hundred people gathered on a square outside the Skhodnenskaya metro station in the capital’s northern outskirts. They had come to hear Alexei Navalny, a candidate in the city’s mayoral election to be held on Sept. 8. Since the outbreak of street protests in December 2011, Navalny has turned himself from an anticorruption activist and blogger into the closest thing the country’s anti-Putin opposition has to a star— and, at least for now, the movement’s only credible candidate to stand in a major election.
Navalny, who is 37, has a natural charisma and an obvious gift for political oratory, which veers from angry denunciations of state officials to wry, ironic mockery within the span of a few seconds. From a small stage erected by volunteers, he made pains to present himself, as he said over and over, as a “regular Muscovite, just like you,” delivering a stump speech that touched on everything from his love of fishing to the poor state of his neighborhood state-run clinic to the 9,500 rubles (around $288) in utility fees his family pays for their apartment every month. He also launched into an attack on Moscow’s sizable population of undocumented migrant laborers—he spoke of workers from Central Asia “living underground with as many as 70 people all together”—a frequent topic that wins him populist credentials but concerns his more liberal supporters.
It was all delivered in the kind of folksy language that would be not be out of place in any mayoral race in America. That is exactly what makes Navalny’s campaign so remarkable. Russian political life is predicated on an aloof and almost holy distance between the country’s political class and its citizens. Simply by appearing in public with his wife and children, for example, Navalny breaks the Putin-era taboo that places high-ranking politicians in a separate and higher social caste. The strategy to appeal to voters directly represents nothing more than “a genuine campaign as it should be,” says Nikolai Lyaskin, one of Navalny’s campaign advisers.
Not that Navalny has much choice: He lacks the sizable administrative resources of his main challenger, the pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergey Sobyanin, and he is all but barred from the state-owned airwaves, from which most Russians get their political news. (As he told the crowd during his speech, “I’m here because I don’t have the chance to talk to you through television.”) His campaign, then, is an experiment in whether a Russian brand of ground-level, retail politics can do effective battle with the managed system of power that has taken shape in the Putin era.
For the moment, there seems to be little hope that this strategy will propel Navalny to victory. Nearly all polls have him far behind, around 10 percent to Sobyanin’s 40 percent to 50 percent or more. In a sign of Sobyanin’s confidence, he wanted Navalny in the race to boost the legitimacy of the contest—and thus heighten Sobyanin’s stature inside the political system. Even if Navalny loses, his campaign has already succeeded in injecting a sense of the excitement and unpredictability of real politics into a place that has been devoid of them for so long.
If nothing else, Navalny could hope to use his mayoral bid to chip away at the detachment and cynicism that governs public attitudes in Russia toward public leaders—political capital he could use in future battles. Near the close of his speech, Navalny said that he often hears from voters that, “Well, you’re saying all the correct things, but we can’t change any of this.” In response he told the crowd: “I want to ask for one thing: a little bit of belief in yourselves.”
On that score, Navalny may have already achieved something. Election officials say the campaign has collected almost $1 million in online donations, an impressive sum in a country without a culture of philanthropy or political giving. Perhaps more significant, a group of 37 Russian entrepreneurs, most from technology and Internet companies, published an open letter of support for Navalny’s candidacy earlier this month. Since the trial and imprisonment of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovksy a decade ago, Russian businessmen were said to have been too frightened to involve themselves in politics or challenge the Kremlin. “A line has been crossed,” says Lyaskin, referring to the publication of the letter. “We will see that nothing will happen with these people and that, he adds, will lead to a realization that “the system is not as omnipotent and terrible as people think.” Over time, that may lead not just legions of office workers and professionals but also powerful figures in business and even inside the ruling elite to support opposition candidates.
The campaign may prove formative, not just for Navalny personally but also for the electorate. “The race has already allowed Navalny to develop himself as a politician but is also training the population in political participation,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.
Reasons for optimism remain limited. Most analysts and pollsters have settled on a threshold of 20 percent of votes for Navalny to be able to claim some sort of success. For him to reach that number, says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, “He needs a much wider audience” than those who come out to see him at protests or follow him online. Sobyanin, meanwhile, can count on a “disciplined electorate” of pensioners and government employees, Grazhdankin says. And the state will do its best to try and discredit him in the eyes of the electorate. Charges launched by prosecutors on August 12 that the Navalny campaign accepted illegal donations from abroad seem designed not to bar him from the ballot but to blacken his public image.
The biggest threat hanging over Navalny is his conviction last month in a politically motivated embezzlement case in the city of Kirov. In a rather bizarre display of state infighting and indecisiveness, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison and taken into custody, only to be released pending appeal the next day. The appeals process will run its course after the election, when Navalny could very well be imprisoned. That gives the whole campaign an odd sense of dissonance, in which Navalny talks of potholes and traffic while both he and his audience know he could soon be in a prison colony.
If Navalny is worried, he doesn’t speak about it openly. At his campaign event at the Skhodnenskaya metro, he told the crowd: “I want to be a mayor who is afraid of Muscovites, who has to worry about what he will say when he gets back on this stage in a few years.” If only that were the full extent of Navalny’s worries.