The Krem­lin’s Kryp­tonite?

Anti-cor­rup­tion cru­sader Alexei Navalny has led mas­sive protests in Moscow and be­yond. But can he re­ally chal­lenge Vladimir Putin in 2018?

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY MARC BEN­NETTS @mar­cben­netts1

IT WAS an over­cast af­ter­noon in north­ern Moscow on April 10, and a crowd was gath­er­ing out­side the jail where Alexei Navalny, the Rus­sian op­po­si­tion leader, was fin­ish­ing yet an­other stint be­hind bars. The crowd, mostly op­po­si­tion ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists, was ex­pect­ing to hear a fiery speech from Navalny, a 40-year-old anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist.

But there would be no speeches that af­ter­noon. In an ap­par­ent at­tempt to pre­vent Navalny from ad­dress­ing the me­dia, Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties had se­cretly trans­ferred him to a dif­fer­ent jail some 10 miles away and re­leased him there. He was forced to make his way home alone on the metro.

For Navalny’s sup­port­ers, the un­der­handed move was an in­di­ca­tion of his grow­ing na­tion­wide profile, and an indi­rect ad­mis­sion that Navalny is the only fig­ure with any chance of un­seat­ing Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the 2018 elec­tions. That is, if he can get on the bal­lot.

Putin and his in­ner cir­cle have good rea­son to be spooked. On March 26, Navalny or­ches­trated the big­gest anti-govern­ment protests in years; tens of thou­sands of peo­ple de­fied po­lice bans to rally in al­most 100 cities and towns across Russia. Riot po­lice cracked down hard, ar­rest­ing over 1,000 pro­test­ers in Moscow alone, in­clud­ing Navalny, who was sen­tenced to 15 days be­hind bars for dis­obey­ing po­lice or­ders.

The protests cen­tered on al­le­ga­tions that Dmitry Medvedev, the Rus­sian prime min­is­ter, had re­ceived more than $1 bil­lion in bribes from state banks and ul­tra-wealthy busi­ness­men. In a slick on­line video that has got­ten more than 17 mil­lion views on Youtube, Navalny said Medvedev had fun­neled the il­licit pay­ments through shad­owy char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions into yachts and lux­ury real es­tate. The video sparked an up­roar from or­di­nary Rus­sians, who are fac­ing in­creased

hard­ships as the econ­omy sput­ters, in part due to West­ern sanc­tions in re­sponse to Putin’s 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Crimea. Some 23 mil­lion peo­ple— around 16 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion—are now liv­ing be­neath a poverty line, and a re­cent poll by Moscow’s Higher School of Eco­nomics re­vealed that 41 per­cent of Rus­sians are strug­gling to feed and clothe them­selves.

The Krem­lin has not com­mented on Navalny’s al­le­ga­tions, and Russia’s par­lia­ment has re­fused to com­mis­sion an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Af­ter weeks of si­lence, Medvedev de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tions, and in keep­ing with Krem­lin pol­icy, he re­fused to men­tion Navalny by name.

But Navalny is not go­ing away. “His tar­get­ing of Medvedev will only boost his na­tion­wide rep­u­ta­tion as some­one who bat­tles against cor­rup­tion,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, a prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Moscow.

The protests have al­ready given Navalny a boost. An opin­ion poll by the Moscow-based Le­vada Cen­ter in­di­cated that 38 per­cent of Rus­sians sup­ported the ral­lies and that 67 per­cent held Putin per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for high-level cor­rup­tion. Per­haps more sig­nif­i­cant, the poll also re­vealed that 10 per­cent of Rus­sians would be pre­pared to vote for Navalny in next March’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. For a politi­cian who is men­tioned by state me­dia only when it ac­cuses him of be­ing a treach­er­ous for­eign agent, it was a re­mark­able re­sult.

Though he’s been in­veigh­ing against cor­rup­tion for decades, Navalny be­came a prom­i­nent fig­ure only af­ter the De­cem­ber 2011 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, when protests erupted in Moscow in re­sponse to al­leged voter fraud by Putin’s United Russia party. He later ran for Moscow mayor and re­ceived al­most 30 per­cent of the vote, de­spite a blan­ket ban on his can­di­dacy on state TV.

Navalny has suf­fered for his de­fi­ance, serv­ing nu­mer­ous short jail terms. In 2013, he was sen­tenced to prison for five years on what he says were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated fraud charges but was freed the next day, af­ter his sup­port­ers de­fied po­lice warn­ings and staged a mass rally out­side the par­lia­ment. His sen­tence was later com­muted to pro­ba­tion on ap­peal. In 2014, his younger brother, Oleg, was im­pris­oned for more than three years on cor­rup­tion charges that Navalny says were in­tended to keep him quiet. “My brother has been taken hostage,” he raged out­side the court­house.

It took some time, but Navalny’s rage even­tu­ally proved in­fec­tious, and the Krem­lin ap­peared un­pre­pared for the lat­est out­pour­ing of pub­lic dis­sent. The 2011-12 protests were con­fined to the cap­i­tal and largely pow­ered by older, mid­dle-class Mus­covites. But this spring’s demon­stra­tions have en­er­gized the prov­inces and found mas­sive sup­port among younger Rus­sians, a gen­er­a­tion that has no or little mem­ory of life be­fore Putin. “Un­like most adults, we get our news from the in­ter­net rather than state tele­vi­sion, which ev­ery­one knows is cen­sored,” says Ye­lena, an 18-year-old stu­dent in St. Petersburg. (She asked me to use only her first name so she could speak frankly about pol­i­tics.) “Most adults I know have given up try­ing to change things, but we still have hope that we can one day live in a nor­mal coun­try.”

Navalny and his sup­port­ers have sim­i­lar hopes. They are open­ing dozens of campaign of­fices across the coun­try in a bid to force the Krem­lin to reg­is­ter him as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. He says that he has raised 26.3 mil­lion rubles ($467,000) in pub­lic do­na­tions in just three months and that more than 75,000 peo­ple have signed on as campaign vol­un­teers.

Al­ready, Navalny’s campaign is prov­ing to be un­prece­dented in mod­ern Russia. Un­like in the

United States, can­di­dates here gen­er­ally do not be­gin cam­paign­ing un­til a few months be­fore the elec­tion. Putin, who says he has no time for such things, has barely cam­paigned since he came to power in 2000, and he has never faced a ri­val can­di­date in a de­bate—tele­vised or oth­er­wise.

But Navalny will have to over­come con­sid­er­able ob­sta­cles if he is to see his name on the bal­lot. “The Krem­lin will want to dis­tance Navalny from the elec­tion,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a for­mer Krem­lin ad­viser who is now crit­i­cal of Putin, tells Newsweek. “He is ex­tremely un­pre­dictable and will make the campaign tough for Putin.”

Un­der Rus­sian law, any­one con­victed of a crim­i­nal of­fense is barred from run­ning for pub­lic of­fice. But the constitution says that only cit­i­zens who are be­hind bars are un­able to run, and Navalny is ar­gu­ing that this should al­low him to be on the bal­lot. Russia’s state-con­trolled elec­tion com­mit­tee, which has a habit of block­ing in­con­ve­nient can­di­dates, will rule on his ap­pli­ca­tion in De­cem­ber.

In the mean­time, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties haven’t been pleased by Navalny’s vis­its to their towns and cities. In Tomsk, in west­ern Siberia, campaign vol­un­teers were locked into their apart­ments af­ter their doors were sealed up with in­su­la­tion foam by uniden­ti­fied van­dals, and their cars’ tires were slashed. De­spite hir­ing a burly body­guard, Navalny has been as­saulted twice dur­ing for­ays into Russia’s heart­land, once by a Krem­lin ac­tivist who sprayed green dye into his face and once by peo­ple who claimed to be Cos­sacks.

These ob­sta­cles, along with state me­dia cen­sor­ship and al­leged vote-rig­ging, are why Navalny says Putin will never be beaten at the polls, although he con­tin­ues to campaign in a bid to pile pres­sure on the Krem­lin. “By re­fus­ing to al­low any gen­uine po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion,” the anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist tells me, “Putin is do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to en­sure that he will be forced out by other means.”

Though Navalny bris­tles at the sug­ges­tion that he is Russia’s Don­ald Trump, he is un­abashedly iso­la­tion­ist and anti-immigration. “We will build won­der­ful re­la­tions with the West,” he told sup­port­ers re­cently. “But my for­eign pol­icy starts at home. We will build nor­mal roads, and only then will we worry about our mil­i­tary strength. We will raise pen­sions and min­i­mum wages here, be­fore we sup­port [Syr­ian Pres­i­dent] As­sad’s regime.”

Up un­til 2012, Navalny was a reg­u­lar at the Rus­sian March, an an­nual gath­er­ing of na­tion­al­ists and ul­tra-right rad­i­cals in Moscow. In 2013, he pub­licly backed pro­test­ers call­ing for the ex­pul­sion of Chechens from a south­ern Rus­sian town, and he has also used in­sult­ing ex­pres­sions about peo­ple from Russia’s North Cau­ca­sus and cen­tral Asia.

In re­cent years, Navalny has toned down his anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric, and he has mas­sive sup­port among Rus­sian lib­er­als. But some op­po­si­tion-minded Rus­sians say there is no way they could side with him, even against Putin.

“He car­ries out im­por­tant anti-cor­rup­tion work, but his po­lit­i­cal pro­gram is based on na­tion­al­ist-pop­ulism and ill-con­sid­ered slo­gans,” says Anya Sarang, a lead­ing HIV ac­tivist. “I think those peo­ple who sup­port him do so out of des­per­a­tion.”

Des­per­a­tion or not, Navalny is one of the few politi­cians in Russia who is able to bring large num­bers of peo­ple out into the streets. And it’s a power he in­tends to keep on us­ing. Un­bowed by his re­cent stint be­hind bars, he has called for more na­tion­wide protests on June 12, the Russia Day pub­lic hol­i­day.

“If Rus­sian cit­i­zens don’t have the right to take to the streets with Rus­sian flags on Russia Day, then it means that your sole aim is to trans­form Russia into your own per­sonal wal­let,” he says in an on­line video ad­dress­ing Putin and Medvedev, which was posted April 12.

The very next morn­ing, po­lice car­ried out a se­ries of raids on the homes of anti-putin ac­tivists across Russia.

Navalny’s re­sponse? “Keep up the pres­sure.”

NAVALNY IS THE ONLY FIG­URE WITH ANY CHANCE OF UN­SEAT­ING PUTIN IN THE 2018 ELEC­TIONS. THAT IS, IF HE CAN GET ON THE BAL­LOT.

THAT SHUT­TLE DIPLOMACY: Navalny sup­port­ers block the po­lice ve­hi­cle tak­ing him away af­ter he was ar­rested for lead­ing a mas­sive, na­tion­wide protest on March 26.

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