Russia Direct presents a roundup of how foreign and Russian journalists covered the Moscow mayoral election and the political performance of opposition candidate Alexey Navalny. 

Alexey Navalny. Photo: AP

The Sept. 8 mayoral election in Moscow has been viewed as a pivotal one by both Russian journalists and their foreign counterparts from the U.S. and UK. This election has attracted a great deal of attention primarily because of the personality of Alexey Navalny, anti-corruption blogger, opposition leader and harsh critic of the Kremlin.

After he was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges in the well-publicized Kirov case, his political prominence and heft became obvious to political experts and journalists, both in Russia and abroad. As a result, media have actively covered his political endeavor.

Both Russian and foreign journalists agree that Russia’s political system faces a pivotal moment and that this Moscow election was unlike others they have covered. To underscore this point, several thousand supporters of Navalny recently gathered in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square demanding a recount of the results of Sunday’s Moscow mayoral election, which they claim was rigged.

The Russian coverage seems to be more diverse and brings together more opinions on Navalny (both negative and positive), unlike their Western counterparts that unanimously describe Navalny in a rather positive and heroic way. Some Russian media sources warn against the radicalism of Navalny and his supporters.

“Navalny is in line with the Western stereotype of the whistleblower who fights the system,” Evgeny Minchenko, Director of the International Institute of Political Expertise told Russia Direct. “There have been many favorites for the Western audience: [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yushchenko, [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili.”

Likewise, some Russian liberal newspapers tend to idealize Navalny, Minchenko argues. “For example, even the editors of Russia’s renowned liberal newspapers censored me to present Navalny in a more appealing way,” he said.

Yuri Korgunyuk, co-founder of the Moscow-based think tank and non-governmental organization INDEM, doesn’t agree.

“Personally, I haven’t seen the idealization of Navalny even among those Russian media outlets that are sympathetic to him,” he said. “After all, those who support Navalny are people with a higher education and there is hardly likely to be a cult of personality among them.”

Navalny: A new type of political candidate

Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Kommersant Daily Gleb Cherkasov described the mayoral election as “a song full of praise in honor of hard-working candidates” in his recent column in reference to the Navalny team and his political success. According to Cherkasov, hard-working candidates can achieve good results provided they have more freedom and opportunities to communicate directly with voters. 

“The old American proverb that the amount of votes is equal to the number of handshakes has been effective this time, even though not to a full extent,” his column reads. “Many didn’t participate in the elections, but those who got through succeeded in showing themselves… This Election Day has shown that public politics is hard and unpleasant to deal with, but it is possible. Those who will take this seriously will have more chances, those that won’t – they will fall short.”

Cherkasov believes that this new political reality is a serious challenge for the authorities because the new generation of candidates – unlike those nominees elected by the authorities – requires other approaches for dialogue. According to him, these political changes are “avalanche-like” in their nature.

“The greater the calculation [on having access] to administrative resources, the faster the problems come,” he explains.

Vedomosti newspaper echoes Kommersant: A new stage of political development, much discussed in the Kremlin, has indeed arrived. “The Kremlin believes that this planned evolution is under control. But the evolution has its own rules,” reads the Vedomosti editorial while warning against further political changes.

“The rejection of grave falsifications turns out to decrease the support of the authorities,” the editorial says. “People don’t vote anymore for bosses by default: Low turnout works in the favor of opposition; given a competent and active campaign, the opposition is able to take away the periphery electorate from the system’s parties.”

According to the newspaper, the opposition turns out to have left political ghetto, it came out from the Internet ghetto to launch an effective offline campaign.

Strong, aggressive and radical

The political expert Stanislav Belkovsky wrote in his Moskovsky Komsomolets column that the Navalny mayoral campaign is highly likely to bring a new round of decisive and more radical political leaders who might change Russia’s political landscape.

“Finally, I have been waiting for the rise of a new generation of leaders who – unlike their old predecessors – would want power and fight for power instead of turning politics into business and selling votes to the Kremlin,” he wrote. “Such people have come and their name is Navalny.”

At the same time, Belkovsky expresses his concerns about the radicalism of Navalny and his supporters.

“I wish I could be glad, but I am not glad for some reason,” he warns. “On top of that, I am afraid for the first time of my not-so-short social-political activity.”

Belkovsky describes the Navalny campaign as a triumph despite his formal defeat. According to him, Navalny’s political tactics seem to resemble an act of “aggression and revenge.”

The supporters of Navalny. Photo: Reuters

“The level of hysteria in this campaign happens to have been much higher,” he wrote. “By the end of the pre-election race, there has been an impression that the supporters of the opposition leader are caught by the collective insanity,” Belkovsky wrote, referring to the growing fanaticism among those who support Navalny.

“The new generation has come,” he said. “Indeed, it does crave for power … the power to decrease the craving for revenge against the older generation that deprived it of clear hopes and a real future.”

Some Russian columnist tried to interpret the election as a failure of Sergey Sobyanin, who won the elections. Pavel Svyatenkov, a columnist for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, argues the authorities’ positions are shaky at best. This can be gathered from the headline that reads, “No matter how the Moscow elections end up, Sobyanin has lost”

“His [Sobyanin’s] positions in the city will be shakier that it was earlier. After all, who he was before the elections? [He was] the mayor appointed by then-President Medvedev. And who will he become after the elections? [He will be] the man who rigged the vote results,” he wrote in his article referring to growing speculations from the supporters of Navalny that the mayoral elections were fabricated.      

“Thus, the operation of ‘legitimizing’ the current system of the authorities is falling short,” he said. “On the contrary, its illegitimacy is increasing. At the same time, new groups of the population whose opinion is brazenly ignored will switch to support the protest movement.”

The column sums up: The irony of this situation is that Russian President Putin would control this mayoral fight in the country regardless of the outcome of the elections, even if the second round were announced.

“The ‘Orange Revolution’ in a test tube, on the scale of one city is very impressive,” he wrote. “After all, Moscow is not Russia. The control over the country remains, but Moscow is allowed to rage and boil.”

Navalny:  A miraculous campaign

Like their Russian counterparts, American journalists believe that the Sept. 8 Election Day indicates that more people are disappointed and frustrated with the authorities and that this create a challenge for Putin’s regime. 

In a New Yorker column by Masha Lipman, “Alexey Navalny’s miraculous, doomed campaign,” published two days before the election, Navalny was introduced as an outstanding opposition leader, “funny and charismatic but also smart, purposeful, and fearless, with impressive stamina.” 

According to Lipman, there were several miracles during his campaign.  

“The first miracle is that Navalny was able to run at all,” she said mentioning the criminal charges against him, the five-year prison sentence. “The second miracle is Navalny’s campaign,” she continues, pointing out to Navalny’s capability to bring together thousands of volunteers who “committed their time and souls to his campaign.” And the third miracle is the private fundraising that Navalny’s campaign relied on “given Russia’s pervasive political cynicism.”

“Altogether about a hundred million rubles (roughly three million dollars) have been raised,” she said. 

Like almost all her foreign counterparts (and some Russian counterparts), Lipman sees the Navalny campaign as the Kremlin’s attempt “to add a semblance of pluralism to Russian political life, and thus prevent new mass protests.” At the same time, she warns that the situation might go out of control.  

“Whatever the government’s motive, once the door to politics opened a crack, Navalny put his shoulder in,” she wrote. “But Navalny’s energetic campaign has given the protest constituency a sense of political purpose that will not go away.”

The supporters of Navalny. Photo: Reuters

Moral victory

“Navalny's result – achieved with none of the financial, administrative and media advantages that incumbents enjoy – was interpreted as a clear sign of disaffection with the ruling elite,” wrote The Guardian newspaper. “The opposition leader's unexpectedly high result, which he attained after tenacious street campaigning, appeared to mark an important turning point in Russian politics. For the most part, previous elections have been dominated by candidates from parties loyal to the Kremlin.”

Huffington Post regarded the Moscow mayoral campaign as “a pivotal contest that has energized Russia's small opposition in ways that could pose a risk to the Kremlin in the days and years ahead.”

Likewise, The New York Times sees the Moscow mayoral election as “an unusually competitive test of Mr. Putin’s power, following mass protests in 2011 and 2012 over the conduct of national elections.”

“Although Mr. Putin faces no imminent threat to his power, the election showed that his prolonged rule as the undisputed authority here has generated a significant amount of discontent, at least in the nation’s political and economic capital,” the newspaper wrote shortly after the voting. “A challenge of the results by Mr. Navalny could lead to more popular unrest.”

The newspaper argues that Navalny’s success is a result of his hard work, anti-corruption crusades, competent political campaign and public indignation with the current authorities.

The Washington Post’s headlines indicate that the newspaper also views the Moscow mayor election as Navalny’s political achievement: “Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has strong showing in Moscow mayoral race, despite loss.” “In Moscow mayoral election, activist Navalny fails to force runoff, bur declares moral victory.” The newspaper ’s recent article describes Navalny in a romantic and very appealing way.  

“He had been denied billboards and television time,” it reads. “Most newspapers ignored him. President Vladimir Putin refused to speak his name. Over the summer, he was sentenced to five years in prison on theft charges that were widely considered trumped up. The date of the election had been set to give incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, handpicked by the Kremlin, the advantage.”

And despite all these challenges, Navalny “stood before thousands of cheering supporters Monday night and declared a sweeping victory”, the newspaper implying that he won elections morally. “Only hours before, he had been ruled the loser in Moscow’s mayoral election. But as he stood on a stage on an island near the Kremlin, Navalny saw only triumph.”

Likewise, the British newspaper The Independent sees Navalny as a hero who won a moral victory, gained political prominence from scratch and challenged Putin’s regime. 

“Even with the loss, Navalny’s relatively strong showing against a Kremlin-backed candidate, who had vast resources and a monopoly on television exposure outside minor channels, almost guarantees a shift in the Russian political landscape,” it said. “It raises the prospect of a new election stand-off in Russia.”

The Independent argues that, “Navalny had spent the entire campaign running not against his leading opponent, Sobyanin, but against President Putin — and that strategy appears to have clicked with a large number of the electorate.”