What Will Moscow’s Election Matter if Navalny Loses?

September 3, 2013

On September 8th, this upcoming Sunday, Moscow will pick its next mayor. No Russian election in many years has attracted as much national and international buzz as this race. Sergei Sobyanin, the acting mayor and a member of Putin’s party United Russia was facing serious political challenge in the upstart blogger-turned-politician Alexei Navalny. Navalny is young, charismatic, and good-looking (not modifiers typically used in describing Sobyanin). The young blogger had cut his teeth by investigating public fraud and generally exposing the ills of the current system in Moscow. Navalny is the only real grassroots political candidate since the early 1990s, when democracy was a brand-new concept in post-Soviet Russia. He has launched himself into the national and international spotlight not because of his wealth or his powerful connections, but because his blog has struck at the Kremlin’s power base.

Navalny has had a noticeable impact on the Russian political system. Sobyanin took Navalny seriously enough to resign from his post in order to trigger a special election, and with it a shorter campaign season. Sobyanin has also refused to participate in the mayoral debates, fearing that all the candidates would gang up on the incumbent, likely with Navalny leading the way. Putin has also demonstrated that he is scared of Navalny; during the campaign, Sobyanin was seldom scene but at the president’s side. Furthermore, the state media, much of which were put in place by both Putin and Sobyanin, have ensured that the acting mayor, not the opposition blogger, have been highlighted in the election coverage.

But forcing him to lose a political contest wasn’t the only way the Kremlin wanted to de-legitimize Navalny; it had to show that he was a hypocrite and a thief as well.  In a now-notorious show trial for “embezzlement,” Navalny was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail, though his sentence was temporarily suspended until the exhaustion of an appeals process (which will lose) and the completion of the mayoral election (ditto). During the trial, the defendants — Navalny and his former business partner Peter Ofitersov — weren’t allowed any witnesses, and almost all (33 of 35) of the prosecution’s witnesses actually testified on behalf of Navalny. Nevertheless, he was found guilty in a criminal justice system with a 99% conviction rate.

Even in a fair mayoral contest, Navalny might not have won but his defeat is all but certain. Pollsters have essentially ruled out a surprise victory, or even a runoff election (see the latest translation by The Interpreter for results from three polls). Polls show that Navalny was surging, but the latest data examines the main reason that his campaign has stalled. While many Muscovites are paying attention, and many of Moscow’s youth are fired up about politics for the first time, Navalny has turned off too many voters. Either they believe the fraud charges are true, or they view him as too radical. Even if support for the status quo is sagging, Moscow is not ready to make the leap to the anti-status quo candidate.

So was all the media hype surrounding Navalny unjustified?  Did Sobyanin, Putin, and the Kremlin overreact to the Navalny threat? If he loses this election, what does this mean for the future of Moscow’s opposition movement?

Reading deeper into this poll, and others surrounding various issues facing Russians, it’s clear that there is a deep discontent brewing in Russia’s populace and growing frustration within Russia’s youth. But Russia’s opposition movement is immature, and faces resistance from the established power structure at nearly every turn. The opposition can’t be about one candidate, in one city, no matter how strong a candidate or how important the city. Even Navalny himself has acknowledged the fact.

But Navalny has had a discernible impact on Russian politics, albeit one that may not be truly appreciable until the next big election. There are cracks appearing everywhere in the system Putin spent over a decade building and fortifying, and Navalny has widened those cracks. The amount of resources the Kremlin has used to crush his candidacy and impugn his integrity as an anti-corruption activist is nothing short of Herculean. A non-stop state-owned media propaganda machine has vilified Navalny; a corrupt legal system has just robbed him of five years of his freedom. If, after all this, Navalny comes in second place, and secures even 10 or 15 percent of the vote, he’ll have at least created a space in which it is still possible to debate honestly about Russia’s future. The question is whether the rest of the opposition will take advantage of it.

And what of Navalny himself? As a politician, Navalny has proved prone to rookie mistakes. He’s been able to draw large crowds, and lots of headlines, but the energy, and sometimes radicalism, of Navalny’s supporters may have turned off many mainstream voters.  The Interpreter’s editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, writes that Navalny’s inexperience is both what has allowed him to succeed, and what may ultimately hold him back. “Navalny’s immaturity as a politician is in some ways a virtue: he’s both a product and a foil of this regime, someone who knows the system is rotten but isn’t well prepared to build a new one or offer many credible alternatives for governance.”

Such things are simply foreign to Russia now.

Navalny is also a problematic figure for Western liberals who are naturally inclined towards anyone who opposes Putin’s creeping totalitarianism. Navalny’s nationalism, in particular, has many concerned that his xenophobia could lead Russia into an even darker place than it already inhabits. As The Interpreter has pointed out, those opinions need to be put into the context not only of Russian nationalism as a movement itself but also of how Russians see the world. In other words, Navalny’s controversies are authentic Russian controversies; his views, be they genuine or politically concocted, are ones that are widely shared, however uneasy this makes Western liberals who sympathize with dissidents. Sasha de Vogel has examined how xenophobic beliefs actually do resonate with Russian voters. “Navalny’s apparent nationalism might be a scandal in the West or deal-breaker for some oppositionists, but it is not likely to be alienating for voters who feel strongly about migration. Now Navalny’s platform steers clear of nationalism and frames migration as an economic and social issue. He would be wise to belabor those points in his stump speeches, as nearly half of all [likely voters] found that migration was not publicly discussed enough.”

The impulse to romanticize or heroize anti-establishment figures in foreign countries is an impulse to disappointment. Just this week, Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev had an anti-Semitic meltdown on social media. Those ideas will end Alexeyev’s celebration by most Western gay rights activists. But a more interesting test will be to see how those comments are received by ordinary Russians.

Navalny will continue to blog, and may provide a megaphone for the next opposition candidate.  His legal appeal will once again bring him attention. If he goes to prison, he may be seen as a martyr by many — the man who had to be shut up and locked away because he posed a real threat to Putin. But Navalny is only one man, the only real opposition political candidate of note at this time. Will he have inspired others? And if so, might not that be his greatest long-term victory against Putin?