Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who considers himself the main opposition candidate in Russia’s upcoming presidential elections of 2018, began his campaign by opening a series of local headquarters in Russian regions outside of Moscow. Russian legislation is rather rigid toward independent candidates that do not represent any officially registered party. According to the federal law on presidential elections, the date of voting is officially appointed no earlier than 100 days prior (Consultant.ru, accessed March 20). And then, in order to be allowed to take part in the election, the campaign headquarters of the self-nominated candidate have only one month to collect the prerequisite 300,000 signatures in support of his or her candidacy (Consultant.ru, accessed March 20). Currently, it is too early to begin collecting signatures, so for now Navalny’s regional headquarters are engaged only in local agitation for his support. From each individual Russian region, candidates can collect up to 7,500 signatures, so this campaign will take place primarily in the country’s most populous regional cities (E1.ru, February 25; Ekho Moskvy, February 27).
In February and March, Navalny visited seven of Russia’s largest cities outside Moscow—St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Samara, Ufa, Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. When traveling to these areas, he frequently faced hostility from local authorities and pro-Kremlin organizations (E1.ru, February 25; Ekho Moskvy, March 27). But no less important to the prospects of his successful run has been the counterintuitively negative local reaction to a specific pillar of his developing campaign platform—Navalny’s criticism of Moscow’s political hypercentralization. This paradox was especially noticeable during Navalny’s meetings with volunteers in Novosibirsk: A well-known Moscow politician promised them he would fight against Moscow’s centralism (Navalny.com, February 18).
Russian federal TV channels essentially never show Alexei Navalny and even avoid mentioning his name in broadcasts. However, due to his activity on the Internet, he has become widely known across Russia as an irreconcilable fighter against corruption. For example, his revealing film about Prime Minister Medvedev’s concealed wealth received over eight million hits on YouTube in just ten days after it was posted (Navalny.com, March 2).
But if Navalny can be called a professional anti-corruption investigator, he is much less familiar with the topic of federative relations within the Russian Federation. And that is becoming a noticeable problem for this opposition presidential candidate. Navalny is a born Muscovite, and evidently this has colored his views in favor of the Russian centralist tradition. As routinely seen in the regional press (see below), the public generally welcomes Navalny’s crusade to expose corruption in the power elite, but is often highly critical of his understanding of the specifics of center-region relations in the various Russian federal-level entities.
Navalny demonstrated a notably centralist approach when visiting Yekaterinburg. Specifically, he shared his idea—which he later reiterated in Kazan—to push fiscal and governing/planning powers down to the municipalities, instead of strengthening those institutional powers at the regional level. In his opinion, such a set up would “exclude [the threat of] regional separatism” (Znak.com, February 25). Moreover, he called the long-floated idea of creating a sovereign Ural Republic inside the Russian Federation as “extreme.” Finally, he added that oil rents should not remain in the producing regions, but be redistributed at the federal level (Znak.com, February 25). However, today, under President Vladimir Putin, revenues from the extraction of raw material are already redistributed by Moscow. So it is unclear how “President Navalny’s” policies in this area would be any different from Putin’s.
In Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan Republic, Navalny responded laconically: “If I become president, I will give money to the regions” (Proufu.ru, March 5). Thus, his understanding of federalism in the country appears to be purely based on economic considerations—i.e., characterized only by some financial and tax decentralization. Granted, he also says he stands for the free elections of governors and even for the legalization of regionally localized parties, which are now banned in Russia. But he has yet to comment specifically on the current shape or resilience of treaty relations between Moscow and the regions. The legally outlined center-region relations, which are supposed to form the political foundation of federalism in Russia, have notoriously been under attack for decades under Putin’s centralizing “power vertical” system of governing (Idelreal.org, March 5). Also quite indicative, despite his “decentralist” declarations, Navalny remains a supporter of the concept of a “unified political nation” in Russia (Business-gazeta.ru, March 9).
The anti-corruption-blogger-turned-politician met particularly sharp criticism in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. Notably, Tatarstan has maintained working institutions of self-government and nurtured a particularly strong regional identity since the early 1990s. Following the presidential candidate’s visit, Tatarstani political scientist Ilnar Garifullin criticized Navalny’s idea to transfer most political and fiscal powers not to the regions but down to the city level. According to Garifullin: “If we redistribute tax authority from the regions to the cities, then Kazan or Almetyevsk [where republican oil giant Tatneft’s head office is located] will receive the bulk of financial resources, and small towns and rural areas will continue their further socio-economic degradation, as is happening today” (Afterempire.info, March 13).
Another local public figure, the leader of the “European Tatarstan” movement, Artur Khaziev, noted: “Navalny, like many other Moscow politicians, does not have an understanding of what a federation is. The federation is an association of regions that delegate authority to the federal center, and not [a system under which] the center delegates something to the regions” (Idelreal.org, March 6). It is significant that today, Tatarstan is the only Russian republic, whose head is still officially called a “president.”
Though railing against domestic political overreach by Moscow, Navalny has also raised eyebrows in the Russian regions by asserting a need to prevent their purported separatist tendencies (Znak.com, February 25). Indeed, Putin’s Russia has also been “fighting separatism” by criminalizing “calls for violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” (Afterempire.info, March 3). In reality, however, these concerns coming out of the Moscow political class are grossly misplaced. Overall, the Russian Federation’s regions, even when calling for greater decentralization, see their future as remaining inside one country.