Our View

Navalny throws a bad scare into the Kremlin

By From page A12 | September 15, 2013

The issue: Against all odds, opposition candidate gains traction

By the standards of an honestly conducted election, Alexei Navalny got creamed in his run for mayor of Moscow, 51.4 percent to 27.2 percent.

But by the standards of elections conducted under the aegis of autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny threw a bad scare into the Kremlin and may have introduced an unfamiliar but potentially transforming development into Russian politics: the grassroots campaign.

PUTIN HAD PREDICTED that the appointed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, would win with about 60 percent of the vote. Instead, after a ballot-counting that in pro-Sobyanin areas took a suspicious length of time, Sobyanin barely got the necessary 50 percent minimum he needed to avoid a runoff.

According to the Associated Press, Golos, Russia’s most respected election-monitoring organization, questioned the accuracy of the vote and quoted its executive director, Grigory Melkonyants, as declaring, “This is not a convincing victory.”

Navalny, 37, was one of the leaders of the massive protests that followed the patently fraudulent 2011 parliamentary elections. Thus it was no surprise that, in July, the upstart was convicted of embezzlement charges widely, and undoubtedly correctly, believed to be trumped up, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, Sobyanin, whose term was to run until 2014, abruptly resigned and called a snap election, hoping to catch potential opponents off guard when most Muscovites were on vacation. The ploy, probably Kremlin-inspired, worked too well and he faced no credible opponents, which would have made his election not only tainted but a laughingstock.

THE UPSHOT WAS that Navalny was abruptly released from jail to campaign, but faced the usual impediments of an opposition candidate: no access to the broadcast media, nightly criticism by Kremlin commentators and difficulty obtaining rally permits.

Nonetheless, he put together a kind of campaign familiar here but new to Russia, one that relied on numerous small donations, massive support by youthful volunteers and nonstop handshaking by the candidate himself.

Even with the Kremlin’s thumb on the scale. Navalny’s 27 percent was far better than anyone had expected. This was Moscow’s first mayoral election since 2003, because in 2004 Putin abolished direct elections for governors and regional leaders.

Since youthful enthusiasm has a shelf life, Navalny may not be able to hold his political organization together, but he has established a template for other grassroots-style campaigns. And the Kremlin is unlikely to send him back to jail for other than a token length of time, wishing to avoid the wrath of the 630,000 Muscovites who voted for him.

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