Anti-corruption campaigner and fierce Putin critic Alexei Navalny made headlines in December by signalling his intention to participate in the 2018 presidential elections. But by throwing his hat into the ring, Navalny may be falling into a trap, which could torpedo his political career and deliver a serious blow to the opposition.
Some see Navalny as lending legitimacy to the presidential election, but this is not why his name looks set to appear on the ballot. These days Putin has little need to pay heed to Western concerns over Russia’s democratic deficit. He has rarely felt more secure, with populist politicians in Europe and America expressing their admiration for him and record levels of domestic support. A recent poll by the authoritative Levada Center showed that 86% of the Russian population support Putin’s policies.
Given his seemingly unassailable position, Putin is likely to see Navalny’s candidacy as an opportunity to publicly humiliate the activist-turned-politician – who he has long sought to discredit – and in so doing deny the opposition a promising leader in a post-Putin Russia.
Little was known of Navalny, a 40-year-old lawyer, prior to his emergence as an anti-graft activist in the late 2000s. After a period campaigning on behalf of minority shareholders in state-owned companies, Navalny established the Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK), which propelled him into the spotlight. FBK campaigners published dozens of investigations alleging corruption at the highest echelons of the Kremlin, including scores of individuals in Putin’s inner circle. His anti-corruption zeal knew no bounds: at one point he denounced the president as a thief – which is believed to have enraged Putin.
Having gained prominence via social media platforms, where he shared FBK’s work, Navalny took on a political role in December 2011 when he joined other prominent opposition activists in leading anti-government demonstrations, sparked by claims that parliamentary elections had been rigged. In the largest protests since Putin took office in 1999, hundreds of thousands converged on Bolotnaya Square, a stone’s throw from the Presidential Office. The crowds are said to have rattled the Russian leader. One observer, who met Putin at the time, said he could not understand the protesters’ call for his resignation after delivering a decade of economic growth.
In the years after the Bolotnaya events, several of those who participated in the unrest were jailed. In July 2013, Navalny himself was given a five-year suspended prison sentence for embezzlement. Surprisingly, two months later he was allowed to take part in Moscow’s Mayoral election, where he faced Putin loyalist Sergey Sobyanin. The latter won convincingly, with Navalny drawing just 27% of the vote.
In September the following year, Navalny was back in the dock, once more convicted of embezzlement, along with his brother Oleg. Both received 3.5-year prison terms, but Navalny’s sentence was again suspended, while his brother was sent to jail.
Navalny, whose two convictions were seen as politically motivated, says he sees the upcoming presidential ballot as a platform to discuss Russia’s economic course. Given its vast mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, he argues the country could be more prosperous. At the same time, he believes the economy should diversify to lessen its reliance on natural resources. And in a sign that corruption will be a major theme of his campaign, Navalny has stressed that Russians would be a lot better off if government officials stopped “looting the country”.
While such sentiments will resonate with some Russian voters in the presidential campaign, Navalny does not stand much of a chance against Putin, who seems almost certain to run for another term. Navalny has acknowledged that his prospects are poor, but he appears to see the election as a means of raising his profile outside Moscow. While he commands respect amongst some of Russia’s intelligentsia, support for him in the regions is very small. And he has little prospect of making much headway there, as he lacks both significant funding and media backing, and will also likely face bureaucratic obstacles, such as such as restrictions on TV air time, rallies and use of premises for election-related activities.
Moreover, during the last few years state-owned media channels have increasingly portrayed Navalny as little more than a criminal and accused him of acting against Russia’s national interests. On one occasion, a TV channel denounced the politician as a CIA agent. The aggressive media campaign is only likely to be stepped up as the presidential election campaign gets underway.
All of these obstacles may lead to Navalny’s humiliation at the polls. For the Kremlin, imprisoning Navalny would have risked turning him into a martyr. A crushing electoral defeat in which his reputation would likely be blackened, however, would demonstrate that he is not as popular as he claims to be, and could leave him so discredited that other opposition figures might be reluctant to ally with him in 2024, when Putin is likely to step down.
Nicolae Reutoi is a Senior Analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.