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
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.