The turnout was low. The chances of him ultimately winning the election are zero. There will not be another contest like this one for years. And the city in which the drama played out was Moscow, the most liberal, if this word even applies, in Russia.
But Alexsei Navalny’s campaign for mayor was a stunner. It was the first serious challenge in many months to the autocracy of Vladimir Putin. And though he did not of course win, Navalny managed nevertheless to capture a remarkable 30 percent of the votes cast. (The final figure remains to be determined – if it ever will.) Moreover the story is not yet over. Exactly how this will all play out – in the near and far term – remains to be seen.
This much, though, we know for sure. First, that Navalny is now indisputable leader of the Russian opposition. Second, that Putin is scared of Navalny – scared to jail him on trumped up charges lest people (lots of people) protest. (Navalny was recently sentenced to five years in prison, only to be mysteriously released the next day.) And third, that the only way for Putin to keep a lid on the situation is to continue to walk that fine line between menace and promise.
I have been writing about Navalny for years, since he began his public life as a fly in Putin’s ointment. He came, in other words, out of nowhere, an ordinary if remarkably intrepid man who first made his mark as a particularly bold blogger, understanding early on that even in repressive Russia social media could create change. And now he’s evolved, from a follower (without power, authority, or influence) into leader (with,some power and some influence) – a daredevil leader at that, primed to take on a man who would like nothing so much as to throw him in jail and toss away the key.