Anti-corruption activists turned out in droves throughout Russia on January 28, with events ranging from a small protest shunted to the parking lot of garbage processing plant in Kazan, to a thousands large affair that took over central Moscow streets. Labeled a “voters’ strike,” demonstrators took to the streets to call for a boycott of the upcoming presidential election on March 18.
It didn’t take long for the opposition movement’s leader, Alexei Navalny, to be detained by police as he attempted to travel to the protest. Navalny was later released but was still charged with organizing an illegal gathering, and, a few days later, some of his associates were also detained and sentenced to a few days in jail for publicizing the protest via webcast.
Navalny has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. With a long history of environmental and anti-corruption activism, he came to prominence through his blog and YouTube channel during the 2011 anti-corruption protests. Navalny has since translated his activism into the political sphere, beginning with his Moscow mayoral run in 2013 where he came in second—behind an incumbent Putin appointee—with a sizable 27 percent of the vote.
These protests were notably smaller than past protests organized by Navalny, presumably having to do with the latter’s larger scope, such as those of 2017, which focused around corruption within the Kremlin at large. Boycotting is a much more divisive issue within the activist community, and many of Navalny’s supporters are anti-boycott As the days count down to an anticlimactic presidential election, a big question remains for anti-Putin activists: to vote in a clearly-rigged election or to boycott and give Putin a larger margin of victory.
Navalny himself was barred from candidacy in the election in December, in a much-expected move by the Kremlin that cited a previous fraud case. Navalny was handed a five-year suspended sentence (in which he’ll be on probation while his prison sentence is delayed for five years) in February of 2017 in a retrial of a 2013 case accusing him of embezzlement, which was deemed unfair by the European Court of Human Rights. In a 12–0 vote, with one member abstaining, the Central Election Commission voted to stop Navalny’s campaign on the basis of a Russian law disallowing those that have been convicted of a felony in the last ten years from running for office.
The move might suggest Navalny posed some threat to a clear Putin victory, yet Navalny was nowhere near the popularity he would need to seriously challenge Putin. Navalny’s chance to win was slim to none, with a poll by the independent Levada Center in November finding support for him at only 2 percent among Russians who planned to vote. Despite this, he still remained the most visible and outspoken opposition to a clear Putin victory. Other opposition candidates allowed on the ballot exist as a mere stab for democratic legitimacy, puppets in an empty charade of free elections. Candidates are only allowed to appear on state-controlled television or in debates with Kremlin approval, an honor true opposition candidates like Navalny are never afforded.
With Navalny gone, Putin’s opposition comes from names like Ksenia Sobchak, a television show host with close ties to the Putin family; Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party nominee; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the perennial nationalist candidate whose platform includes changing the title from President to “Supreme Ruler of Russia” and restoring Russia’s borders to those of the Soviet Union in 1985.
Putin’s paranoia is evident—Navalny never had the popular support he would need to win, and the allowance of his candidacy would have likely lent some legitimacy to a presidential election marred by its rigged appearance. Yet Navalny’s mere semblance of a threat caused Putin to attempt to push him off as a non-entity, refusing to so much as say his name on live television.
Thus, the election has become not a question of winning for Putin, but rather is seen as a way to substantiate and flex the support of the government. Putin is still haunted from the protests that followed the previous presidential election and is seeking to redeem himself. Anti-Putin protests in December of 2011 drew the biggest anti-Kremlin crowds in Moscow since the 1990s protests against Boris Yeltsin, and they have continued intermittently throughout Russia until mid-2013. During these protests, anti-corruption Russian activists accused the Putin regime of election fraud and called for fair elections.
As a result, high turnout has become a way for Putin to feel that his own power and government is seen as legitimate. Reports earlier in the year from Russian news outlets claimed the Kremlin had an internal “70 at 70” goal, in hopes of 70 percent in favor of Putin at 70 percent turnout. Considering the lack of a galvanizing force pushing Russian citizens to vote in a set election, and that turnout numbers in the 2016 parliamentary elections hovered at around 48 percent, it seems unlikely this goal will be met. Further, Putin was unable to reach 70 percent in the previous presidential election, with turnout of 64.5 percent, in a year in which widespread protests motivated Russians to vote.
Navalny’s boycotting campaign poses a threat to Putin’s goal of high turnout. However, it’s unclear whether or not Navalny has the support to send a strong message to the Kremlin. Thus, anti-Putin Russians have a no-win choice, in determining whether or not to vote, facing them as the presidential election draws nearer. There is a level of engagement inherent in voting against Putin that doesn’t come from staying home from the vote. And while boycotting Putin would decrease turnout numbers, it would increase his share of the vote.
However, it isn’t evident that turning out to the polls would end up making a visible statement, considering the possibility of the Kremlin tinkering with voting numbers. In the 2012 election, official reports in the province of Chechnya show 99.4 percent turnout with 99.7 percent voting for Putin. One precinct in the area recorded 1,482 votes for Putin despite there only being 1,389 registered voters, resulting in 107 percent turnout. These numbers are indicative not of a highly motivated, Putin-supporting populace, but rather of election irregularity and fraud. It’s not immediately apparent that voter fraud is present in large metropolitan areas like St. Petersburg and Moscow, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility and has been the force behind the anti-corruption movement. Thus, the “70 at 70” goal, which the Kremlin has repeatedly denied, is an internal one for Putin to feel as though his support is legitimate.
And so, there really is no good option to oppose Putin in the upcoming election—barring extraordinary circumstances, Putin will once again be re-elected to the Presidency. The question really remains to be seen whether or not the Navalny coalition will coalesce and make a meaningful impact.
Though his presidential campaign was over before it started, this is not the end of the story for Alexei Navalny. He can do just as much damage outside of the electoral process, something evidenced by the fact that access to his blog was blocked by Russian authorities on Thursday. The presidential election itself will likely be uneventful and go as Putin plans, without protests the size of those in 2011. It is clear that the danger that Navalny presents to Putin lies not in the number of votes he gains nor the turnout he depresses through boycott, but in his ability to mobilize an opposition.
Caleigh Stephens is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.