The Kremlin is hesitant about allowing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to run for president in 2018. However, he might be seen as both a tool of attracting voters to the polling stations and a troublemaker.

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny during an interview to the Associated Press in Moscow. Photo: AP

Before Russia staged the Crimean referendum to take over the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2017, the rumors about “little green men” without insignia, who seized key administrative buildings in Crimea, circulated in the media. They were reported to have come from Russia to conduct a secret operation to foster Crimea’s “return”. The rumors were eventually confirmed.  

Three years later and one year ahead of the 2018 presidential election in Russia, the “little green men” came back — this time in the incarnation of Alexei Navalny, the Russian anti-corruption whistleblower, a charismatic opposition leader and probable presidential candidate. On Monday, Mar. 20, an unknown individual splashed bright green liquid into the face of the opposition politician in the Siberian city of Barnaul, where Navalny planned to open his election headquarters.

Video by Alexei Navalny

Whether one likes it or not, this incident looks like a part of the Russian presidential campaign that seems to be in a full swing. Navalny announced his presidential bid in November, 2016 regardless of criminal charges against him for the alleged embezzlement in a state company. But the resumption of a four-year-old criminal conviction hampered his odds.  

In early March, he released a documentary — the investigation, in which he accused Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of large-scale corruption. While some observers saw the probe as persuasive and relevant, others (primarily, politicians and the authorities) describe the documentary as a start of Navalny’s political campaign to bolster his publicity.

Nevertheless, Navalny got the media's attention and even more supporters. And it seems that he is not going to give up. He is going to organize an anti-corruption rally on Mar. 26 in defiance of the authorities' attempts to stop him. His early campaign is based on revealing corruption schemes of those at the helm and holding them accountable. In his early video blog, he called on his supporters to defend "the real presidential election" in 2018 and make it more democratic and competitive. According to him, all elections in Russia have been rigged since 1996.

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However, Navalny’s key goal is to be officially registered as a presidential candidate. He believes that the Russian Constitution cannot stop him from becoming a presidential candidate despite pending criminal charges against him. He argues that the Constitution prevents only prisoners from participating in the elections.

Yet, according to political experts, Navalny is aware of his low odds of becoming the official presidential candidate. He understands that it is not going to be easy, given the fact that he will have to collect at least 300,000 signatures (as any other independent candidate who runs for presidency). 

Navalny has already opened his election headhunters in at least six Russian cities, but he seeks to launch about 70 headquarters. This looks like an audacious plan, taking into account the fact that the pro-Kremlin activists have been relentlessly trying to undermine his campaign. Once he gets off the plane or the train in a Russian city, they throw raw eggs at him or splash bright green liquid into his face, as evidenced by a recent incident.

With Navalny’s campaign in full swing, Russian current President Vladimir Putin remains suspiciously reticent and ostensibly hesitant about his plans to run for presidency. This means that officially, the presidential campaign has not yet started. At the same time, other opposition political parties have been preparing their candidates since the end of 2016.

For example, Grigory Yavlinsky, one of the most experienced opposition politicians, officially announced his presidential bid last year. He participates in the race every time and persistently fails. So do other politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovksy, the flamboyant leader of the Russian Liberal-Democratic Party, and Gennady Zyuganov from the Communist Party. All of them look like “fake” candidates who are supposed to fall behind in the race.

Currently, the Kremlin doesn’t seem to have decided whether or not it should grant Navalny the opportunity to register as an official presidential candidate. The agenda of picking rivals for Putin remains open. On the one hand, his competitors should meet the demands of diverse constituencies to prevent them from gathering protest votes. On the other hand, they should not pose a threat to Putin’s future presidency.

Can Navalny be a real rival for Putin in this regard? Hardly likely: Nobody doubts that Putin will be the winner. Quite naturally for Russia, there is no intrigue in the upcoming election at all. Experts ironically describe it as “a credibility referendum for the acting president.”

Also read: "Will Navalny be the candidate the Russian opposition is looking for?"

But if Navalny finally participates in the election, he might score additional political points after the campaign and, most importantly, reinvigorate the protest movement. That might be the reason why the Kremlin is hesitant about allowing him to run for presidency. Thus, Navalny might be seen as both a tool of attracting voters to the polling stations and a troublemaker.

Moreover, the Kremlin is concerned with the possibility of the low turnout during the presidential elections. As indicated by the 2016 parliamentary election with its low turnout (less than 50 percent of Russians came to the polling stations), the lack of interest toward the presidential election among the population is a serious challenge for Putin. After all, it implies that Russia’s “silent majority” doesn’t support him. That's why the authorities will do their best to reinvigorate the people’s interest towards politics.      

Amidst such a background, they pin hopes on the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, a systemic liberal, who was picked by Putin to increase the turnout in the presidential elections. Will he succeed? It remains to be seen.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.