The Magazine

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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Visiting Moscow today, you’d never know that the city is less than a month away from a mayoral election, scheduled for September 8. There are hardly any campaign posters or billboards (you’re far more likely to see the face of Bruce Willis than that of any candidate) and only scant campaign ads on radio 

Alexei Navalny speaks to voters, July 31.

Alexei Navalny speaks to voters, July 31.


and television. And yet the mayoral race is a genuine political fight—one whose outcome will affect not only the capital but the entire country. Given Moscow’s unique status in Russia’s political life, changes here resonate quickly in other regions. The 1990 election of opposition candidate and Boris Yeltsin ally Gavriil Popov as mayor of Moscow was a key moment in the mostly peaceful revolution that brought down the USSR the following year.

When Vladimir Putin built his new political order—the top-down power structure known as the vertikal—he was well aware of the threat posed by local elections, which wouldn’t necessarily go the Kremlin’s way. So he abolished the popular election of governors of provinces and mayors of major cities in 2004 and replaced it with presidential appointment. Moscow’s current mayor, former Communist party apparatchik Sergei Sobyanin, was appointed in October 2010 after 18 years of the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Yuri Luzhkov, removed from his post after a falling-out with the Kremlin. Sobyanin’s tenure has brought no positive change to the city and its more than 12 million residents. Municipal government is inefficient and utterly lacking in transparency, with zero accountability to the public; the cost of living keeps rising, largely as a result of corruption, which is widely believed to consume nearly a third of the city budget.

Early in 2012, faced with popular discontent and mass demonstrations, Putin brought back gubernatorial and mayoral elections as a concession to the opposition. Now, Sobyanin, a career bureaucrat, is forced to step into the role of a politician facing the voters. His challengers consist of four candidates from the Kremlin’s tame “opposition” including the Communist party—and a real opposition candidate who represents the forces of democratic change, Alexei Navalny.

The son of a Soviet Army officer, 37-year-old Navalny has a double degree in law and economics, and in 2010, he spent six months studying at Yale as part of the Yale World Fellows Program. He had been on the Russian political scene for a while as an anti-corruption blogger before skyrocketing to fame, and to a major role in mainstream democratic activism, in the last two years.

The secret of Navalny’s success is that the issue he chose as his focus—corruption—has huge political and emotional resonance for Russians from all walks of life, from blue-collar workers to bankers. He first gained visibility by exposing fraudulent schemes in state-controlled corporations such as the Rosneft oil monopoly and the VTB bank, then went after Russian senators and members of parliament who owned undeclared real estate abroad (causing the resignation of Duma ethics commission chairman Vladimir Pekhtin over his three properties in Florida). Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation attracted the support of a number of Russian entrepreneurs and business executives—those who couldn’t or wouldn’t play by the rules of the corrupt bureaucracy.

Then, in late 2011, Putin announced his planned comeback as president, followed by reports of vote-rigging in the Duma elections. Navalny, who was able to mobilize large numbers of people through his online following, emerged as a leader of the reborn protest movement. His arrest in December of that year for “obstructing traffic” during an unsanctioned rally, followed by a 15-day jail sentence, only catapulted him to greater fame. He became the face of the protests, bellowing into a megaphone, “We are the power!” and urging people to rise against the “crooks and thieves” in government. “The Party of Crooks and Thieves,” the nickname Navalny coined for the ruling United Russia party, caught on like wildfire. 

While the liberal opposition has never been able to shake off its aura of out-of-touch elitism, Navalny has a rare ability to relate to the average Russian and speak his language. A married father of two with clean-cut good looks and a natural self-assurance—a sort of Russian version of the all-American guy—he projects the image of an ordinary man who is in politics because he wants a good life for his children.

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.

The authorities have responded with legal and extra-legal harassment. Banners hung by his supporters have been removed by janitors rappelling down from rooftops; cars with Navalny stickers have been vandalized, leaflets stolen. On August 14, the police made a warrantless raid on the apartment of a pro-Navalny activist and confiscated “illegal” campaign literature (that is, allegedly exceeding the quantity the campaign has officially reported). The Moscow prosecutor’s office has also filed criminal charges against the Navalny campaign for receiving contributions from abroad—which the campaign strongly denies. Ilya Milshtein, a commentator for the website, believes that the targeting of Navalny actually benefits him, to the point where “it’s as if the Kremlin were determined to oust Sobyanin or at least ensure a runoff.” (Another, more pessimistic prognosis is that Navalny may be disqualified from the race before the vote.)

In fact, the Navalny campaign believes that a runoff election—which must take place if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote—would be a victory regardless of the outcome. An August 14 poll by Synovate Comcon found that 63.5 percent of “decided” voters intend to vote for Sobyanin, 20 percent for Navalny, and 16.6 percent for other candidates. Compared with data from July, this is a 15-point drop for Sobyanin and a 9-point gain for Navalny—a trend that, if it continues, bodes well for a runoff. 

Even a partial victory, Navalny’s team believes, could force significant concessions from the Krem-lin, including an end to media black-listing of the opposition and to legal restrictions on opposition party activism. It might also prepare the ground for a presidential run five years from now, which Navalny says he is contemplating. Tellingly, the slogan for his mayoral campaign is “Change Russia—start with Moscow.”

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and a contributing editor to Reason magazine. Victor Davidoff, a Moscow-based journalist, writes a column for the English-language daily Moscow Times.

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