The Impossible Challenge: Running for President in Putin’s Russia

BY MILO KAHNEY

Alexey Navalny attending a 2013 opposition rally (Photo by Vasili Shaposhnikov/Kommersan/Getty Images).

On Dec. 13, 2016, in a video sent out to his followers, Alexey Navalny, a handsome 41-year-old prominent lawyer and political activist, announced his candidacy for the Russian Presidential election in March of this year. The election is far from contested. Putin is expected to be elected for his fourth term in office by a wide margin. Putin’s widespread influence, however, does not intimidate Navalny. He is holding rally-after-rally, attacking Putin and the oligarchs for gross corruption and blatant authoritarianism. His attacks have struck fear into the heart of the Kremlin so much so that, last June, Navalny’s campaign was barred from competing in the election. This puts Putin’s greatest threat for the presidency to rest. However, it has angered many of Putin’s critics and further de-legitimized Russia as a real democracy. The barring of the Navalny’s candidacy appears as more of a panicked attempt by the Kremlin to hold onto power than a shrewd political strategy.  

Navalny rose to prominence over a decade ago for his anti-corruption campaign. He bought small shares of state-own companies and as a shareholder he received access to internal documents. He then posted these documents on a blog, revealing mass corruption. He has also taken to Youtube to make documentaries about the lavish lifestyles of government officials. Despite their modest salaries they are able to afford mansions and yachts. His documentary on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s five estates reached over 25 million views. This led to mass protests last March and Navalny’s eventual arrests when he called for more demonstrations. His supporters, demonstrated their resolve when thousands marched on the street anyways, leading to 1,700 arrests. These demonstrations caused Putin to take harsher actions. He started to step-up his purge of adversaries and dissidents.

On top of anti-corruption, Navalny has also centered his campaign on inequality. He wants to invest more in education and health, restore freedom of the press, and tax the oligarchs. He has come under fire for attending nationalist rallies – some even fascists. Something he has downplays by claiming he was there not to support their policies but to support their right to hold rallies.

Opposing Putin is an almost suicidal task. Opposition leaders and activists have a way of mysteriously dying in Russia. The barring of Navalny comes just two years after the assassination of former opposition leader Boris Nemtsov outside Red Square in Moscow. Boris Berezovsky, a former Kremlin official turned nuisance, was found dead in his bathroom with a noose around his neck, however, the coroner’s office could not definitively deem it a suicide. Lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who represented Chechen civilians in human right cases against the Russian military, was shot and killed along with fellow journalist Anastasia Baburova outside the Kremlin in 2009. Vladamir Kara-Murza, an outspoken critic of Putin, was poisoned twice in the span of two years, miraculously surviving both incidents. Although there is no hard evidence linking the Kremlin to these deaths, a connection obviously exists. This has led to protests from the followers of these slain politicians and activists. Every year there are demonstrations in Moscow commemorating the assassination of Nemtsov. The international community has also drawn a line when it comes to killing adversaries, with many western countries imposing sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, friends of Putin live in extreme luxury. Putin himself lives like the ultra-rich, with an approximated net worth between $40 and $70 billion – some estimates are even as high as $200 billion – making him the richest man in the world with almost twice as much money as Jeff Bezos.

Although the window to kill Navalny may be closed, Putin is still ruthlessly attacking him in both petty and vicious ways. Navalny is often thrown in jail on trumped up charges. He claims to be arrested every fifth day on the campaign trail. Most of his arrests are for small crimes like holding rallies without permits – which the Kremlin refuses to give him. Some of his arrests are for fraud and embezzlement. In the summer of 2013, he was sentenced to five-years in prison, which was suspended once thousands of his supporters took to the streets. The following year, he and his brother were both arrested for embezzlement, a ruling that the European Court of Human Rights called “arbitrary and unfair.” While his sentence was suspended, his brother has remained in prison, spending two years in solitary confinement. He has also been barred from national television, he gets around this by posting videos to Youtube and other social media websites. Fans of Putin have attacked him by throwing green dye and even acid onto his face. Besides these challenges he has still campaigned effectively, raising $4 million from ordinary Russians. His corps of volunteers surpassed 170,000 and he holds rallies all across Russia, sometimes even as far as Siberia. This has made him one of the most famous people in Russia and has brought him international recognition. Love him or hate him, Navalny is hard to ignore.

Navalny is not the first nor the only opponent of Putin. There are other opposition leaders, like Ksenia Sobchak, that have their own campaigns. Navalny, however, has built an army of loyal followers and his campaign being barred has only strengthened their resolve. Even though he is barred from this election, Navalny can still run in 2024 when Putin is, again, constitutionally barred from running for another term.  

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