Why you should care
Because if the revolution is in the streets, he’ll be at the front.
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In late February, Alexei Navalny emerged from a Moscow dentist’s office to find seven people ready to detain him. He could spend the upcoming national elections behind bars, as the Kremlin sees him as far more than just a nettlesome toothache.
The activist lawyer has been repeatedly imprisoned and even had his face doused in chemicals by assailants, requiring a trip to Spain for surgery to restore vision in his right eye. After leading mass anti-Kremlin protests, from St. Petersburg to Siberia, Navalny has been officially barred from running for president against Vladimir Putin. (The legal reasoning is Navalny’s dubious 2014 fraud conviction.) So he merely urges his followers to boycott the March 18 election — believing low turnout would deny Putin the mandate he craves.
Navalny, 41, is model-handsome, with a cleft chin and a fervent following among the rising post-Soviet generation eager to eradicate government corruption. The young lawyer launched his career in dissent by making small investments in oil giant Gazprom and other publicly traded megafirms, then asking tough questions at shareholder meetings and pushing for transparency.
His crucial instruments are blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Although law enforcement has targeted people for web speech, there’s no “Great Firewall” like in China — at least not yet — so Navalny’s investigations spread quickly among the country’s internet generation. Navalny has taken on everyone from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to National Hockey League star-turned-senator Slava Fetisov. An investigation by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s vast real estate holdings via charitable foundations — among other schemes — sparked the mass protests, which could help lead to Medvedev’s ouster.
Navalny could stand a chance against any other consensual elite candidate, other than Putin, in the case of a free and fair election — which is not currently a possibility.
Ekaterina Schulmann, Moscow-based political scientist
Navalny’s donor-funded Anti-Corruption Foundation boasts a staff of 30 who conducts wide-ranging corruption investigations. Though he can seem a bit of a one-note horn player on corruption, the issue resonates for an economically slumping nation. In 2013, he ran for mayor of Moscow and lost to the Kremlin’s handpicked candidate, Sergei Sobyanin, as Navalny levied election-fraud claims. (Officially, Navalny took 27 percent of the vote, while the incumbent, Sobyanin, earned barely enough to avoid a runoff.) It’s hard to gauge the size of his national support and whether Navalny could win a truly free national election — as some contend — or if he is merely the favorite of a young, Western-leaning niche.
But painting Navalny as a Barack Obama–like figure, inspiring his country’s youth with technologically savvy campaigning, is off base ideologically. His past participation in the right-wing nationalist Russian March and harsh words about ethnic minorities and immigrants have drawn comparisons to Donald Trump instead.
As he perfects his outsider-raging-against-the-machine image, Navalny just might have some help on the inside. Anders Åslund, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, says that Navalny deploys drones to snoop on the properties of his investigative targets — a difficult feat to pull off without high-level assistance. “It’s good Navalny is not exposing Putin directly,” Åslund says. “That’s dangerous. That would be a full clampdown. So he takes on the next best thing, and that is Medvedev. And you always have people high up who will think that they should come in [Medvedev’s] place.”
That doesn’t mean Navalny is safe. But his popularity has proved to be an asset. In 2013, mass protests helped free him after just one day of a five-year embezzlement conviction. The government, which had revoked his passport for years, granted Navalny’s request to travel abroad for the eye surgery required after the chemical attack.
No one is under any illusion that Putin will lose the upcoming election, in which he faces TV personality Ksenia Sobchak. But if Putin suddenly were not there, and particularly if there is a split within the Kremlin about a successor, Navalny has a built-in constituency. “Navalny could stand a chance against any other consensual elite candidate, other than Putin, in the case of a free and fair election — which is not currently a possibility,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist.
But in a standard Russian election (read: rigged), Navalny might be more of a Howard Dean than anything, building an outsider’s playbook for the next person to come along and lead the country. “It’s clear what he’s against; it’s less clear what he’s for,” says Jeff Mankoff, a Russia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “I know a lot of the intelligentsia, which is very anti-Putin, is also not particularly enamored of Navalny. I think he’s still in some ways more effective as a gadfly than as an alternative national leader.”
But Navalny does have one quality on which everyone can agree. As Mankoff puts it: “He’s a very brave man.”
This story originally ran in 2017 and has been updated ahead of Russia’s March 2018 national elections.