Navalny: Out of the frying pan, into the Moscow mayoral race

Aerial View of Moscow From Beyond Stadium, file photo

(Moscow News – – Natalia Antonova, Kristen Blyth – July 22, 2013) Even for Muscovites who aren’t very much into politics, the September mayoral elections are about to get interesting. The surprising five-year sentence for opposition candidate Alexei Navalny – and the equally shocking decision to free him the very next day pending appeal – has both exacerbated political tensions in the capital and suggested that for the first time in a long while, an anti-establishment figure has begun to edge his way into the political mainstream.

At the unsanctioned Moscow protest against Navalny’s sentence on July 18, many of the attendees talked about how it meant that a Rubicon had been crossed.

Irina, a middle-aged woman who described herself as a pensioner, wiped the sweat off her brow as she warily watched the riot police on Tverskaya Ulitsa in the heart of Moscow.

“Maybe I’m too old for all of this, but [the treatment of Navalny] forced me to come out,” Irina said. “[Navalny’s sentence] means they are trying to clamp down on any real diversity in politics, they are drunk on power, and they are going too far.”

The prosecution’s unprecedented decision to contest Navalny’s jailing pending appeal meant that Navalny and his former business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov, were freed in a Kirov courtroom the very next day.

On Saturday, Navalny, who had been convicted on embezzlement charges he said were politically motivated, returned to Moscow to be greeted by journalists and hundreds of supporters. He announced that he would continue his election campaign to become Moscow mayor.

In the capital, the mood among Navalny’s supporters was decisive. Ivan, a Muscovite in his 20s, was decorating his car with Navalny election stickers in central Moscow when he was approached by The Moscow News for comment.

“I have to confess that I wasn’t very political growing up,” Ivan said of his evolution from casual observer to opposition-minded agitator. “But all of these recent events… [they] made me realize that it’s time to get involved somehow.”

Does winning matter?

Asked whether or not Navalny has a realistic chance at winning, Ivan said that winning didn’t matter. “What’s important now is that [Navalny] will keep growing more recognizable,” he said. “I believe he has long-term political goals and he is determined to see them through.”

Independent polling agency the Levada Center currently has Navalny’s July rating at just 8 percent – though that does mean a significant increase from his 3 percent June rating. Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s July Levada rating stands at 78 percent. []

It remains to be seen whether or not Navalny’s sentencing and dramatic release will bump up his ratings even further.

Sympathy and recognition

According to political expert Pavel Svyatenkov, Navalny’s political future will be greatly affected by his showing against Sobyanin. “If Navalny gets around seven to 10 percent of the vote, that would be considered a failure,” he said. “A showing of 15 to 20 percent would be deemed a huge success, on the other hand – and would be Navalny’s ticket to mainstream politics.”

Svyatenkov believes that Navalny’s arrest and sudden, dramatic release were unlikely to have been accidental. “Think of all of this as a planet whose orbit is affected by a seemingly invisible gravitational force,” he said. “Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

According to Svyatenkov, it may very well be that liberal politicians close to PM Dmitry Medvedev are using Navalny’s status as a persecuted opposition leader in a larger game against Sobyanin, who has a realistic chance of running for the Russian presidency one day.

Alexei Makarkin, the first vice president of the Center of Political Technologies, believes that what actually happened is that the government couldn’t make up its mind about the opposition leader. “There is a lack of consensus within the political elite on what is to be done with Navalny,” Makarkin wrote in a statement on the Center of Political Technologies website.

Svyatenkov believes that Navalny stands to gain from the brouhaha surrounding his person either way. “Navalny’s popularity has been slipping prior to the [Kirov] courtroom debacle,” Svyatenkov said. “Now he’s likely to gain a lot more sympathy – and a lot more recognition.”

Makarkin also believes that Navalny’s rating is likely to rise. “Yet it is unlikely that this will lead to any radical alteration of the overall situation with the election,” he wrote. “Sobyanin has enough weight to win in the first round, though this also means that Navalny has a good chance of ending up in second place with 15 percent of the vote.”

Conspiracies and mixed signals

Since Navalny’s release, conspiracy theories about what really happened have been voiced in the blogosphere and the mainstream media. Some high-profile activists have even accused Navalny of striking a deal with the Kremlin.

According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent sociologist who has closely studied the Russian political elites, the idea of a President Vladimir Putin calling the shots in the Navalny case is absurd. “Putin’s position on this is unwavering: he thinks that unless the Kremlin stops interfering, the criminal justice system will never be respected,” Kryshtanovskaya said.

Kryshtanovskaya attributes the strange, zigzag pattern of the Navalny case to confusion. “The judge is supposed to make his own decision – but he, perhaps, is not used to that, so he’s trying to guess what everyone wants from him,” she said. “[What we’re witnessing now] is a top-down attempt at democratization; nobody is used to it – and people are reading [the signals] however they want.”

Not everyone believes that Putin has taken a hands-off approach to Navalny. “The decision to put Navalny in prison was made in late 2012, by Putin and the Investigative Committee,” political commentator and former Kremlin advisor Stanislav Belkovsky told The Moscow News. “But when that decision was made, nobody was planning on a snap election in Moscow in September of 2013.”

According to Belkovsky, Navalny is being used by Sobyanin to legitimize the election – and will go back to serving time when he is no longer useful.

“No one can say with 100 percent certainty what will happen next,” Belkovsky said. “But it’s likely that Navalny’s appeal will not go through, though perhaps his sentence may be reduced somewhat.”

Lending weight to Belkovsky’s theory is the fact that an anonymous representative of Sobyanin told Vedomosti on Monday that Sobyanin himself petitioned the country’s leadership to free Navalny, though it is unclear who exactly may have been approached by Sobyanin. A representative of the Presidential Administration meanwhile claimed that there would be no comment on such “rumors.”

Who’s who in the race for mayor:

While rumors surrounding Navalny’s release continue, here is a quick glance at the other main candidates in the mayoral elections:

Sergei Sobyanin

The incumbent and prohibitive favorite to win is running as an independent candidate but with the backing of the ruling United Russia party. Some of Sobyanin’s urban development projects, like the revitalization of Gorky Park and a new bicycle rental system, have been popular; others, like introduction of paid parking and road and sidewalk development, have drawn the ire of critics who say they were poorly executed.

Sobyanin was appointed the mayor of Moscow by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in October 2010. Last month he abruptly resigned – two years early – and announced he would run again for the seat in September’s resulting snap elections. This will be the first mayoral election in the last ten years; previously, regional representatives were appointed by the president. Sobyanin’s decision has widely been seen as a timed political calculation. Opposing candidates have only two months to campaign, leaving little time for a viable contender to emerge.

Ivan Melnikov

Member of the Communist Party and mathematics professor at Moscow State University. His life motto, according to his profile on the Communist Party website, is “If you can help, that means that you should help.” He is campaigning to give greater power to municipal deputies and members of the Moscow City Duma.

Melnikov is currently deputy head of the delegation of the Russian State Duma in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Melnikov got 2 percent of general public support in Levada’s July poll.

Nikolai Levichev

Leader of A Just Russia party, running on a campaign platform called “City of Justice,” which includes ideas about reforming city government, reducing traffic and housing prices, and integrating migrants into the Moscow community. Levichev has pointed out an imbalance between the interests of city officials and the daily interests of citizens, and has promised to increase the involvement of ordinary people in city governance if elected. Levichev received less than 1 percent support in Levada’s July poll.

Mikhail Degtyaryov

The youngest candidate, at 32 years old, Degtyaryov is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and has been a Duma deputy for just two years. Degtyaryov has publicly denigrated Russia’s opposition movement on his blog. He’s a competitive fencer and has won prizes in several Russian and international fencing competitions. Degtyaryov won less than 1 percent support in Levada’s July poll.

Sergei Mitrokhin

Leader of the Yabloko Party, Mitrokhin’s been an active participant in political rallies since the 1990s. He attended last Thursday’s unauthorized rally near Manezh Square to protest Navalny’s incarceration.

Mitrokhin campaign slogan is to “return the fate of the city into the hands of Muscovites,” and he plans to introduce new citizen feedback systems and increase transparency of government spending if elected. He won 1 percent of public support in the July Levada opinion poll.