MOSCOW (AP) — A motley gaggle of hipsters, mothers with children and two babushkas with hair dyed bright red gather to listen to something they haven’t heard in over a decade: a stump speech for Moscow mayor.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has become the best known face of Russia’s protest movement, is trying to take his following offline and into the street, waging a traditional campaign of hand-shaking and leaflet drives to win voters outside his base of the young and web-savvy.
Navalny has little hope of defeating incumbent Sergei Sobyanin — but polls show his star is rising. And if he gets a big chunk of the vote, the Kremlin will face pressure to show leniency over his five-year prison sentence, and the grassroots protest movement that fizzled out after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency last year may gain new wind.
Sobyanin, meanwhile, is playing the regal incumbent: Throughout the campaign, the Kremlin-backed politician has been all but invisible, allowing the constant drone of jackhammers or whiff of fresh paint that are signs of a Moscow makeover to remind voters of who’s in charge — and who can pull the purse-strings.
Navalny is the one who has been soaking up attention, and generating buzz. On a recent August day, the opposition leader stood on stage in a sprawling Moscow park dotted with enormous space shuttles and other scraps of Soviet-era glory, and attempted to connect with an audience he rarely reaches through Twitter: the feared and revered babushka contingency.
“We know that (in Soviet times) our oil money was spent on enormous factories, industry, railroads, roads, science, health care, rockets,” he boomed, riffing on a nostalgia felt by many older Russians, who saw their hopes dashed and savings depleted under post-Soviet political reforms.
“But can you name a single major business that’s been built in this country in the past 10 years? I can’t!”
The old ladies sitting in the first row chuckled and shook their heads.
On Sunday, police briefly detained Navalny after he left the stage of a campaign event, and released him a short time later. The detention was part of a series of public signals to Navalny, who was given a verbal warning about various alleged campaign violations by the Moscow electoral committee last week.
Polling data on the race is spotty and inconsistent, but the trends are clear: The number of Muscovites ready to vote for Navalny on Sept. 8 has breached 10 percent and may even be moving toward 20 percent. Meanwhile, Sobyanin’s ratings — while still above the 50 percent that would allow him to avoid a run-off — are slipping by the week. There are four other party-backed candidates in the race, none projected to snag more than 5 percent.
Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada polling center, said that Sobyanin’s voter base was clearly no longer growing, and that there’s now a small chance there will be a second round.
Last month, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges, but was released the day after his conviction in what many have described as an effort to legitimize the mayoral race and ensure that Sobyanin — who was appointed as mayor and is seen as a possible successor to Putin — is regarded as an elected politician with widespread support.
Such legitimacy is considered important because Putin’s forces are at their weakest in his seat of power: Moscow. When Putin won back the presidency last year, after ruling for a term in the lesser role of prime minister, he won only 47 percent of the capital’s vote, compared to 64 percent nationwide. That may also be a reason why, although there’s no doubt that Sobyanin is the Kremlin’s man, he is running as an independent and has avoided public appearances with the president.
Masha Lipman at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow said that Navalny had already achieved something: cast doubt over the inevitability of Putin’s power.
“One of his greatest achievements is … adding an element of risk and uncertainty,” she said. “Putin built a political system in this country that is risk averse, it’s a political monopoly.”
Rather than the issues — immigration, traffic, high cost of living — it’s a contrast in political style that lies at the heart of the mayoral campaign. In the Levada Center poll, 48 percent of respondents said they would vote for a mayor with “experience,” whereas 47 percent said that personal qualities, such as “openness and determination,” were crucial.
Navalny, a sharp-tongued 37-year-old lawyer, has plenty of the latter. He has waged an intensive campaign with nearly $1.5 million in funds raised online, meeting with hundreds of voters every day and mobilizing enthusiastic young volunteers to help hand out leaflets in the street and on the metro.
His team has also unleashed a flurry of new online projects. From a GPS mapping system that shows how many supporters live in each apartment block to an application that helps users spread pro-Navalny information on Russia’s biggest social networks, the campaign has been keen to lock down his natural base of young voters, many of whom often don’t make it to the polls.
“Currently the polls are assuming that those who haven’t yet figured out who to vote for will vote the same way as those who have,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s campaign manager, told The Associated Press. “The fight is for the 30 percent of voters who haven’t decided yet.”
Andrei Tvertnev, an unemployed 25-year-old former soldier who was lingering in the crowd around Navalny, is one of those yet to make up his mind.
Tvertnev wasn’t keen on Sobyanin, saying that the changes he’s brought to the city “could have been done much faster.” At the same time, he remained skeptical about Navalny.
“Do I vote for a bureaucrat who made some changes, or a different person who promises even more changes?” he asked. “I think I’ll only make up my mind on the day of the elections.”
Sobyanin, who made his name as the governor of the oil-rich Siberian province of Tyumen, makes up for his lack of charisma and enthusiasm with what talks in Russian politics: experience, access and the money that comes with it.
Despite his almost invisible candidacy, Sobyanin is genuinely well-liked for the changes he’s brought to Moscow. He has poured a yearly budget of approximately $54 billion into the city’s parks and cultural institutions, although other promises to tackle traffic and parking have been lagging or limited in scope.
As if to shore up his reputation as a fixer-upper, the city, which usually hits a sleepy summer lull in August, has been converted into an enormous construction site — with sidewalks torn up and facades repainted.
“There’s little doubt that before elections, the government becomes very affectionate and thoughtful,” Levada’s Grazhdankin said about the city’s makeover.
While Sobyanin, who was appointed to the mayor’s office, is eager to prove himself as a legitimately elected politician, the tactics used against Navalny — from accusations that he receives foreign funding abroad to refusals by media outlets to play his campaign ads — show that he still sees Navalny as a threat.
Even if Navalny’s eventual vote tally is relatively low, he may end up having an outsized impact on the Russian political scene.
“If he gets 10 to 12 percent, they can say, look at your opposition leader, he was only able to get this tiny fraction of the vote,” said Lipman. “But those people who are investing their emotions, time and money into this campaign, that experience won’t go away.”
Oleg Bogomolov, a 42-year-old human resources manager who was at Navalny’s headquarters to volunteer for the first time, said he didn’t truly believe Navalny could win.
“But I think the more people who know about him, the greater his chances of being set free,” he said. “If they put him behind bars again (after the election), there will be even more people in the streets.”