On a bright August day in Moscow, a couple hundred people gather outside the Skhodnenskaya metro station. They have come to hear Alexei Navalny, a 37-year-old candidate in the Sept. 8 mayoral election. Since the protests of December 2011, he has turned himself from an activist and blogger into the only credible opposition candidate to run for a major office.
Navalny’s chances for victory are slim. He faces Sergey Sobyanin, the incumbent acting mayor and a member of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. A Sobyanin victory would enhance his stature inside the political elite and possibly put him on the shortlist of potential successors to Putin.
While Sobyanin is generally popular, he comes across as a gray-faced bureaucrat, in contrast to the charismatic Navalny. One poll released on Aug. 15 by Synovate Comcon shows Sobyanin’s support at 63.5 percent, down from 75 percent, with Navalny gaining five points, to 20 percent. Navalny has the public support of more than 200 Russian entrepreneurs, and he has raised $1.5 million from private donations via the Internet. His campaign staff say they hope for a runoff. Few others see that happening. Sobyanin has the civil service and pensioner vote wrapped up.
Navalny’s rhetoric quickly veers from denunciations of official venality to wry mockery. At the metro, he proclaims himself a “regular Muscovite, just like you,” and touches on his love of fishing, the poor conditions at his neighborhood state-run clinic, and his monthly utility bill of 9,500 rubles ($288). He has promised more efficient use of the $52.4 billion city budget, better transit, and the creation of a police force controlled by Muscovites, not the Kremlin. He takes a hard line on the city’s many undocumented migrant laborers from Central Asia and elsewhere. That boosts his populist credentials but concerns his more liberal supporters.
Sobyanin is tough on migrants, too. A detention camp now holds illegal immigrants. Since late July, police have detained more than 6,000.
The acting mayor’s main achievement is making Moscow more livable. He has halted the more egregious building projects of his predecessor, who was forced out, and started reining in the number of cars, a relief to pedestrians. Gorky Park’s renovation has been a success.
Sobyanin wanted to run against Navalny to win a popular mandate, especially after the last two years, when thousands of Muscovites protested what they said were rigged parliamentary elections, and condemned Putin’s third term as president. “The Kremlin needs a rematch to strengthen its power,” says Valery Fedorov, head of the state-run VTSiOM research center.
Navalny himself may end up in jail. Before the campaign heated up, he was convicted of embezzlement, a charge he says was trumped-up. He was released from custody while his lawyers filed an appeal. The candidate keeps going. Near the close of his speech by the metro, Navalny tells the crowd that he often hears voters say, “ ‘Well, you’re saying all the correct things, but we can’t change any of this.’ ” But, he adds, “I want to ask for one thing: a little bit of belief in yourselves.”