Waving the flag.

Photographer: Kiril Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

A Populist Challenge to Putin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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On Dec. 13, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny became the first politician to announce his intention to challenge President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 election -- and he is trying to run as a more ardent nationalist than the unabashedly populist ruler.

Navalny has been a thorn in Putin's side since he started blogging about corruption in government procurement a decade ago, exposing the shady deals of the president's cronies. He labeled Putin's United Russia "the party of crooks and thieves," and it stuck. In 2011, when Putin's United Russia won a parliamentary majority in a rigged election, Navalny was the most forceful leader of the mass protests that erupted in Moscow. Although the protests fizzled and Putin won the 2013 election convincingly, Navalny remained popular among Moscow's middle class. Later that year, he ran for mayor of Moscow against Putin's appointee, Sergei Sobyanin.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

At the same time as the mayoral campaign, Navalny stood trial on allegations that he abused his power as an adviser to a liberal governor. The case was a blatant fabrication, but Navalny received a five-year suspended sentence. He went on to win 27 percent of the vote in Moscow, losing to Sobyanin, but almost forcing a run-off. After an appellate court upheld his conviction, he was disqualified from running for elected office. 

Last month, however, the Russian Supreme court suddenly lifted the conviction and sent the case for a retrial, which is going on now. Navalny seized the opportunity to throw his hat in the ring as a challenger to Putin in the 2018 election. Some Russian commentators hailed this as a deft move. "Navalny's declaration puts the court and those who can influence the court in a corridor of opportunity: Either they're allowing his participation in the presidential election or they're forbidding it," the political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann told the weekly Novaya Gazeta.

According to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who now opposes him, Navalny's bid elevates the stakes of his criminal case. If he's convicted and banned from the election, Pavlovsky told the New Times weekly, Navalny will become an international figure, a politician who is being persecuted for daring to compete with Putin.

In any case, there's no way to determine whether Navalny will get on the ballot: He announced long before Putin had a chance to signal his intentions. It is widely assumed that the president will run, given that he's allowed another consecutive 6-year term and given his sky-high approval ratings -- 86 percent, according to the independent pollster Levada Center. 

Navalny's plan for competing with Putin is intriguing. His platform is populist. It states boldly that health care expenditures "must double," education must be free, the minimum wage must increase almost fourfold, to 25,000 rubles ($408) a month, and mortgage rates must be subsidized by the government until they're down to 3 percent from 11 percent. Navalny calls for a windfall tax on oligarchs and Putin cronies who have been enriched by procurement contracts, and for strict legislation to eliminate corruption.

The program also outflanks Putin on isolationism and nationalism. "The hundreds of billions Russia is now throwing away on wars in Syria and Ukraine and on aid to far-flung countries should be spent on improving life at home," it says. It also calls for entry visas for the citizens of ex-Soviet states in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. 

In short, it's a Donald Trump-like program -- that of a nationalist populist who would rather not explain how he would fund his expensive promises (a more detailed explanation of his agenda merely says the money would come from eliminating graft, lowering security spending and "reasonable increases in government debt" -- though the latter is relatively easy to realize given Russia's 9.4 percent debt-to-economic output ratio).

Another way Navalny resembles Trump is his social media savvy. He uses Twitter and Facebook to promote his anti-corruption investigations and talk directly to a large audience. Navalny has 1.73 million Twitter followers. He knows how to use the social network echo chambers: His every move is a big deal to the dwindling group of open Putin opponents, but during his mayoral campaign, he reached a wider audience of people fed up with the Putin system's leaden indifference and corruption.

One doesn't tend to think of Putin as a centrist politician, or perhaps as a politician at all. Yet Navalny, a lawyer who spent a year at Yale as a World Fellow, wants to attack Putin as if he were a European incumbent or a U.S. Democrat. Though Navalny's nationalist leanings and anti-corruption agenda are not new, he's clearly learning from Trump, who managed to convert a fringe appeal to a major upset.

That's an unlikely outcome in Russia, precisely because Putin isn't just an incumbent, he's practically a czar. And yet it's difficult not to admire Navalny, bruised and battered by the Putin regime but not overcome by pessimism. He knows what his country is like and what his chances are -- but he still makes the effort to act as if Russia is a country where a political challenge to the ruler can be mounted by the rules. It doesn't matter that these rules have been altered by Putin: They are still essentially democratic and based on the premise that, eventually -- perhaps not in 2018, but in 2026 -- the Russian people will shake off their slumber and consider some alternatives.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net