But if one looks closely, a starkly different picture emerges. The very fact that there is an election is an indication of a changed political climate in Putin’s Russia. Putin allowed municipal elections after a ten-year freeze as a concession to the mass protest movement provoked by the rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011. These events signal that the days when Putin or Medvedev could count on over 70 percent of the vote in a presidential race are now gone.
The Moscow mayoral election is not just a city election, and even Moscow’s status as the capital and largest city of Russia does not fully convey the magnitude of this race. As Navalny likes to point out, Moscow is home to 15 percent of Russia’s population and to a ruling elite that makes all the crucial decisions for the entire nation. Whatever happens in this election thus cannot be contained to Moscow, for it is impossible to have parallel regimes of Putin & Co. run Russia and Team Navalny run Moscow side by side. Effectively, this makes the mayoral race the second most important in the country after the presidential election.
This is important because it cuts squarely against the mantra that there’s no place in Russian politics for ordinary people. That opposition activity is a direct, one-way ticket to jail. That the fate of the nation is decided for generations ahead by a ruling gang whose mighty grip extends to every avenue of life, political or otherwise.
“But who can they throw in jail? Maybe 20 people, or 50. Or even 100, if they try hard enough. That’s their entire terrifying potential.” Navalny wrote these words the day before he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for stealing timber in a fabricated case. After the sentence was announced, thousands of his supporters poured into the streets of Moscow in the largest unsanctioned demonstration in 20 years. On that day, the police did “try hard enough,” detaining around 200 demonstrators in Moscow. But most of them were released soon after, and 200 out of 15 thousand (by most estimates) equals a meager 1.3 percent chance of getting in trouble. When the fate of a country is on the line, surely that’s a risk worth taking
Without this simple truth, Navalny could have never convinced his supporters to come out every day, no matter the weather, to hand out leaflets and stickers to passersby. He could have never raised over 100 million rubles ($3 million) from small individual donations from across Russia. And he certainly could never have projected winning 25 percent of the votes in this election even though he was unknown to most Muscovites at the outset. All, it must be noted, despite being blocked from television and radio, deprived of state funding, and in the face of constant harassment by regime-friendly thugs.
So no matter what happens on September 8, Navalny has already achieved something extraordinary: he has returned politics to the people. Win or lose, that in itself is success. “In a few years,” wrote Navalny in a blog post, “you will be gleefully remembering this campaign and telling yourselves: I did not miss my chance to take part in something historically important.”
Happy Election Day.
Krasnov is an associate pending bar admission at Attorneys-At-Law Borenius LLP in New York City and a recent graduate of the Hofstra University School of Law.