Navalny and the Moscow Mayoral Election

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 136

Russian anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny (Source: AP)

The announcement by Vladimir Tor, the leader of the unregistered far-right National Democratic Party (NDP), that he will support anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny in the election for Moscow mayor (http://lenta.ru/news/2013/06/20/navalny/) may have gone unnoticed in the West, but it is one of the most interesting developments in Russian politics. Although Navalny was convicted by a Russian regional court on trumped-up charges, his five-year prison sentence was put on hold pending appeal—which will likely allow him to still take part in the election (see EDM, July 21). The NDP has stated that it will continue to support Navalny’s candidacy for the Moscow mayoralty despite his conviction, which it describes as a “new technology to suppress the opposition” (http://rosndp.org/zayavlenie-ck-navalny.htm).

The election for Moscow’s mayor, scheduled for September 8, comes after the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, renounced the office and declared he would be seeking re-election independently of the United Russia party label (http://www.rg.ru/2013/06/05/kadry-site.html). The office in charge of Russia’s capital and largest city is one of the most powerful in the country and is often seen as a launching pad for potential presidential candidates. In 1999, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was widely seen as the favorite to replace President Boris Yeltsin before the latter surprised everyone by making Vladimir Putin prime minister. Luzhkov was sacked by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 and replaced with Sobyanin http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2013/02/27_a_4990877.shtml). In what may be an attempt to lend legitimacy to the regime, Sobyanin announced the first direct elections for the mayor of Moscow, two years ahead of schedule.

The major candidates for mayor include Mikhail Degtyarev from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Ivan Melnikov from the Communist Party, Sergei Mitrokhin from Yabloko, Aleksander Tarnavskova from A Just Russia, and Alexei Navalny from the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS) (http://www.newsru.com/russia/18jun2013/sobyaningroup.html). Sobyanin is running as an independent. Despite his renunciation of the party label, United Russia continues to endorse Sobyanin for mayor. Sergei Neverov, deputy speaker of the party in the state Duma said, “We have a worthy candidate and it is Sergei Sergeiovich Sobyanin, who in his time working as the mayor of Moscow has recommended himself as a reliable, effective, and an expert leader, for whom the most important thing is the interests of Muscovites and resolution of their problems” (http://interfax.ru/moscow/txt.asp?id=310413). Yet Navalny remains the candidate on whom the most attention is dedicated: his recent sentencing triggered protests in Moscow by between 2,500–10,000 people on July 18, with further protests scheduled for this coming weekend (http://www.itar-tass.com/c1/813886.html). In response to those protests, the authorities released Navalny on bail until his appeal can be heard (RIA Novosti, July 18). The release means that Navalny will hypothetically be able to run in the mayoral election on September 8 (http://www.ng.ru/politics/2013-07-19/1_navalny.html).

Nevertheless, it is unclear to what extent Tor, the NDP leader, represents broader Russian nationalist support for Navalny. For example, on June 4, one of the leaders of the far-right “Russians” movement, Dmitry Demushkin, said, “I do not see any prospective [Moscow mayoral] candidates for nationalist movements” (http://interfax.ru/moscow/txt.asp?id=310413). Given that the nationalists were a major faction of the protesters against the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012, any split presumably weakens the overall opposition movement.

The mainstream parties are also clearly divided on whether they support Navalny being allowed to run in the election. Both A Just Russia and the mainstream nationalist party, the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, support the decision, whereas the Communists oppose it and United Russia declined to comment (http://ria.ru/politics/20130719/950882703.html). While the Kremlin presumably wants Sobyanin to win, Navalny is obviously very popular in the capital, which was the center of street demonstrations in 2011–2012, and any prohibition there risks re-igniting the protest movement. Nearly 100 people were arrested on Thursday night (July 18) in Moscow at rallies in support of Navalny (http://www.itar-tass.com/c1/812967.html). Some political experts have suggested that the Navalny issue is causing splits in the elite (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/19/us-russia-navalny-idUSBRE96G0WO20130719) and the Kremlin has to be very careful in deciding what to do with him. The Kremlin wishes to add legitimacy to the election (and implicitly the regime) by allowing Navalny to run, but does not want him to win (see EDM, July 21); however, blatant electoral falsification risks reinvigorating the protests against the current regime.

If an opposition candidate is likely to win anywhere in Russia, it is Moscow—Russia’s most liberal city. Fewer than 50 percent of Muscovites voted for Putin for president in 2012 (see EDM, March 8, 2012). Similarly, polls show approval of United Russia, the party identified with the administration, registering as low as 35 percent. Despite initial doubts that Navalny would be able to collect the endorsement of 6 percent of the city’s 110 eligible municipal executives—a prerequisite to run for mayor—he fulfilled this condition on July 9 (http://top.rbc.ru/politics/09/07/2013/865265.shtml), and some analysts detected the hand of the Kremlin in pushing deputies to support him. However, the biggest obstacle to a Navalny campaign is the guilty verdict for embezzlement that the court handed down on July 18 (http://www.itar-tass.com/en/c32/812211.html). Conspiracy theories abound that the Kremlin helped Navalny collect the requisite approval to run in the knowledge that he was going to be found guilty, thus allowing the authorities to say he would have been able to run but for the guilty verdict. Should the verdict withstand appeals, Navalny will be ineligible to take the position of Moscow mayor even if he wins.

Navalny, 37, has outlined his plans as mayor of Moscow to include the decentralization of power in the city of some 15 million. The proposed devolution would allegedly speed up official responses to citizens’ problems. In a 15-page booklet (http://navalny.ru/platform/Navalny_Program.pdf) distributed to Muscovites on July 1 in a downtown hotel—an event designed to kick off his campaign—Navalny also promised local solutions to the problems of utilities, healthcare, education, traffic jams and illegal immigration. A clear message from the program is that Navalny sees change in Moscow as “the key” to change in Russia (http://navalny.ru/), a direct indication that his ambitions and plans for reform do not stop with the capital. Whether he will be allowed to implement these plans should he win, or even contest the election, remains to be seen.