Mayoral elections in Moscow are a matter of national, not local, politics. It is often said by both Muscovites and rest of Russians that Moscow and Russia are two different countries. And the Moscow mayor is supposed to be the third most influential person in Russia (after President and Prime Minister).
One of the candidates, Alexey Navalny, is regarded as the leader of the Russian protest movement. The outcome of the race will determine not just the former lawyer’s occupation for the next few years, but whether he remains a free man. He is currently facing five years in prison on trumped-up charges that are even more openly absurd than Khodorkovsky’s. His appeal comes right after the election. If Navalny gets lot of support from Muscovites he will probably remain free. If his supporters stay home instead of voting in one of the bravest persons we know, he will go to prison for a long time.
The opposition in Russia is very diverse. So whoever heads it has to be populist to a certain extent. Navalny is not definitely left or definitely right. That’s why he is supported more or less by most of protesters. At the same time, whoever wants to become a leader in the Russian opposition must have a number of other values. He or she must be persistent enough to build some institutions from ground zero in spite of administrative pressure and in spite of the fact that allies will say now and then that their efforts are in vain. And people here are too frustrated to believe that the Kremlin doesn’t control everything political, so any opposition winner will probably be accused of being a Kremlin spy.
A leader of the Russian opposition, official or unofficial, needs to be very brave. He needs to be ready to go to prison for an uncertain period of time. President Vladimir Putin prefers to not set his personal enemies free. We can see it by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case. Alexey Navalny has probably become another of Putin’s enemies. We know that the Russian president is too afraid to mention his name. Even when criticizing Navalny on TV, he says “a popular blogger” or “a fighter against corruption” or “an opposition leader” without saying his name!
Many people said in the beginning of the campaign that “they” wouldn’t let Navalny take part in real politics. “They” wouldn’t register him as a candidate. “They” wouldn’t let him on TV and radio. “They, they, they…” Navalny and his team have destroyed the idea of a powerful “them” who controls everything. He became the first Russian politician to carry on an American-like campaign. He attracts volunteers, he accepts donations, he involves his supporters in dozens of activities – things that are ordinary for the West but absolutely innovative for Russia. His rivals try to copy this but it usually looks ridiculous. No matter how many votes he gets, Navalny has already changed our view on what politics should look like.
Some say Navalny has no idea of what municipal economy is. But this election is not about ideology but about changing the whole political system. According to some conspiracy theories he may be even Putin’s secret successor, but actually he is the only candidate who is not subordinated to Kremlin. Few people believe he can win. That’s why there is no use debating over his political platform now. But if he gains lot of voice it will be a kind of signal to the authorities that the Muscovites want real changes.
During the latest press conference Alexey Navalny was asked whether he thinks that his case has influenced President Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with President Putin. Navalny answered he wouldn’t overestimate his own meaning in the relationship between the two countries. Moreover, he said, the Russian opposition which is now subject to repression would prefer President Obama and other Western leaders react to what’s happening in Russia. And not only by some symbolic act like refusing to meet Vladimir Putin but by some real steps like Magnitsky Act which make “them” feel really uncomfortable.