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Alexei Navalny Versus the Kremlin

The high-stakes election for mayor of Moscow.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By CATHY YOUNG AND VICTOR DAVIDOFF
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Critics charge that Navalny’s democratic populism contains a dark streak of Russian nationalism, and the Western media have picked this up. The accusation stems largely from his outspoken advocacy of curbing migration from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia—a major concern among Muscovites. Since the 1990s, migrants have been allowed visa-free entry into Russia; while they do not have work permits and private companies are forbidden to hire them, government agencies and city contractors routinely defy the ban. Moscow is currently home to nearly two million migrants, who include their share of criminals and drug traffickers. Navalny wants to tackle the issue by instituting visa requirements. His detractors accuse him of fanning xenophobia—for instance, by citing inflated statistics on migrant crime. Others point out that his statements on migration have focused primarily on bad government policy, not on migrants themselves; on her blog hosted by Echo Moskvy radio, history teacher Tamara Eidelman writes that in a recent meeting with teachers Navalny spoke sympathetically of the need to educate and acculturate migrants’ children.

Navalny himself has stressed that the nationalism he espouses is one of national interest, not Russian ethnicity. His outlook is also entirely free of the West-bashing and swagger about Russia’s “special path” and destiny as a great power that define Russian nationalist ideology—represented, in its mainstream form, by Putin. In a conversation on the blog of writer Boris Akunin in January 2012, Navalny wrote, “We need the state to ensure the comfort and dignity of its citizens, for the defense of their individual and collective interests. A national state is a European path of development for Russia—our own lovely, comfortable, but also strong and secure European home.” 

Navalny’s popular appeal naturally made him the Kremlin’s Public Enemy Number One. (Putin carefully avoids mentioning Navalny by name—even when fielding questions about him during his call-in TV chats—instead making snide references to unnamed “bloggers.”) After a May 6, 2012, rally to protest Putin’s inauguration, which resulted in some violent skirmishes with police, Navalny was arrested again and handed another 15-day sentence. But more serious trouble was on the horizon: embezzlement charges related to his work as an economic adviser to Kirov Province governor Nikita Belykh several years ago. In April 2012, the Kirov prosecutor’s office dismissed those charges, finding no evidence of criminal activity; less than two months later, however, the case was reopened at the direction of the central authorities.

At the Kafkaesque, nonjury trial, the judge blocked all 13 defense witnesses from testifying and would not even allow the expert analysis presented by Navalny’s attorneys to be entered into the record. Navalny was found guilty, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on July 18, and placed under arrest in the courtroom. Yet, after the Russian stock market reacted to the verdict by registering a 1 percent drop, and some 15,000 Navalny supporters rallied near the Kremlin, the authorities unexpectedly backed down. The next day, Navalny was freed pending appeal and returned to Moscow, where he resumed campaigning. 

Not surprisingly, the race has been anything but a level playing field. Navalny is blacklisted from all the major TV channels on which Sobyanin appears frequently, in the news and on talk shows. The other candidates have been given airtime for debates—without Sobyanin—on two small cable channels unknown to most Muscovites; after the first three rounds, Navalny bowed out of the fourth when it was scheduled for 8 a.m. Instead, he has been reaching out to voters through the Internet and shoe-leather campaigning, with three to five events a day. Campaign volunteers have used everything from windshield stickers and leaflets to banners hung from windows and balconies to promote his candidacy.

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