Russia's 2018 presidential elections are now less than six months away. The Kremlin is almost conspicuously silent about Vladimir Putin seeking to extend his presidential term for six more years. During a tidily choreographed television appearance in August 2017, Putin was asked by a 94-year-old resident of Buryatia to take part in 2018 elections. The incumbent president merely replied that he "would think about it". According to a political scientist Feodor Krasheninnikov, the Kremlin's strategy is to delay Putin's announcement for as long as possible. In the meantime, Russians can inspect the opposition and see for themselves that the choice is scant between the irrelevant, elderly opposition leaders of the 1990s and a popular but dubious new candidate, Alexei Navalny. By the time Putin finally announces his candidacy, he will appear invincible.
Indeed, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) announced back in October 2016 that its leader, once a maverick politician, now a veteran Duma incumbent, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 71, would once again run for presidency. Grigory Yavlinsky, 65, of Yabloko, who had also first stood as a presidential candidate back in 1996, announced that he was running in February 2017. The leader of the Communist Party, Gennadiy Zyuganov, 73, is yet to announce his decision, but it is widely expected that Zyuganov would participate in his fifth elections in 2018. Neither of these candidates is expected to be a real contender. They are merely being used by the Kremlin to create an illusion of democratic elections.
Enter Alexei Navalny, a 41-year-old, charismatic lawyer, political activist and now presidential candidate. Navalny came to prominence as a blogger who created the Anti-Corruption Foundation and organised mass protests against elections fraud in 2011. In 2013, he ran in the Moscow mayoral election and came second with 27% of the votes (losing to the incumbent pro-Kremlin mayor). Navalny's popularity didn't go unnoticed. He has been arrested many times, most notably for fraud and embezzlement in a timber deal in 2012. He was convicted in 2013 with a suspended sentence. The European Court of Human Rights later overturned the conviction, but in February 2017 the Russian court repeated its verdict, charging Navalny with a five-year suspended sentence. Navalny and his supporters believe that his persecution are retaliatory and politically motivated. Navalny intensified his anti-corruption campaigning and announced that he would stand in presidential elections in December 2016.
Since then Navalny 2018 campaign opened 76 local offices throughout Russia with Navalny personally visiting over 40 cities and towns. His campaign gathered over 598,000 signatures of support and recruited 151,000 volunteers. Navalny and his team were attacked on numerous occasions; his offices were searched, his fundraising was compromised and many ordinary people were shunned after they had attended anti-corruption marches organised by Navalny. A history teacher from Yeysk, Alexander Korovainy, was asked to resign after he attended a protest meeting on June, 12, 2017. Yet despite many obstacles and the uncertainty whether he would be allowed to run as a candidate with a criminal conviction, Navalny continues his crusade. Today he is the most prominent opposition politician in Russia.
And yet Navalny, whose YouTube videos generate up to 24 million views, divides opinion in Russia even amongst the liberals.
Muscovite Natalia Gorshkova said that come 2018, she would definitely be voting for Navalny. "He is a doer, he is bright, open and charismatic. He is like David fighting Goliath."
Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who moved to London after selling his mobile phone retail business Evroset for $400m in 2009, is routinely donating money to Navalny's campaign. In his recent Instagram post, Chichvarkin explained that he wanted "prosperity for Russia, which is only possible if we re-start the political process. I want elections and alternatives, and this is why I help Navalny."
A Russian living in London, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that in his eyes Navalny was the only real opposition politician in Russia. "He may have his flaws, but he has the best chances to effect changes and turn Russia from regressive politics towards the West."
Alexander Solovyev, who lives in Ekaterinburg, disagrees. He explains that he doesn't like Navalny because he doesn't trust him. "I don't like the way he talks, his presentation style. I don't see a leader in him", he added. "And most importantly, he has no real strategy as a presidential candidate. He mines anti-corruption and nothing else. It's populism, it's political PR without substance. And Navalny ignores all other important issues as if they don't exist."
Some go even further and suggest that Navalny is "a provocateur, who is lobbying his own interests by taking advantage of impressionable, immature teenagers".
Many Russians think Navalny is the Kremlin's project paid for to create an illusion of opposition. In the years following assassination of Boris Nemtsov in the centre of Moscow in February 2015, it does indeed appear unlikely that Alexei Navalny is allowed to openly criticise the government. Moreover, according to political scientist Alexander Morozov, many Russians, brought up on authoritarian practices of the Soviet days, do not believe it is possible for anyone to be independent or to act without prior approval from the Kremlin. The same applies to the fans of conspiracy theories, who believe the entire world is ruled by the powerful financial elite, which calls the shots in a game where Putin, Navalny and Trump are mere puppets.
Putin's approval rating is at 83%, according to the August 2017 survey by an independent pollster Levada Centre, which leaves little doubt over Putin's chances to remain in power until 2024. However, some analysts believe that Putin's popularity is misleading and fragile, like thin ice. Indeed, people who spoke in favour of Putin and called him batyushka (holy father) just a couple of years ago are no longer vocal. Rising consumer prices and falling living standards of the ordinary people strike a contrast with the lives of government officials in popular videos produced and distributed online by Navalny. Many young people became engaged in politics, sharing opposition posts on social media and taking part in peaceful protests. However, most Russians distrust Navalny and even liberals who want to see the end of Putin's reign are wary of committing themselves to support him. Navalny needs to formulate a strong programme of political and economic reforms, establish his foreign policy agenda and focus on the issues beyond corruption to become a viable alternative to Putin whether or not he will be allowed to take part in presidential elections in March 2018.