Alexei Navalny - the daring activist who aims to unseat Vladimir Putin

Alexei Navalny - the daring activist who aims to unseat Vladimir Putin

Navalny is popular in Russia thanks to his consistent stance against Putin

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

After the seismick shocks seen in 2016, even the most unfancied of political underdogs must now feel they have a real shot at power. But even so, anyone willing to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency faces a truly daunting challenge. 

Putin now commands a more formidable power base than any Russian leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. His bellicose foreign policy has helped distract from problems at home, and dissidents such as the Pussy Riot punk group have been unceremoniously thrown in jail. In today's Russia, it pays to be on the side of the leader.

But one politician has already declared his intention to run against Putin, and face the full weight of his bureaucratic machinery, in the presidential election of 2018. Alexei Navalny, a prominent political activist, has confirmed he will enter the race and already looks set to shake up a political scene which Putin has bestrode since winning the election of 2012.

There will be some roadblocks. Notably, Putin is highly popular in Russia. Approval polls from earlier in the year placed him above 80%, and he hasn't sunk below 60% throughout his political career (although the veracity of these polls might be questioned)>

The only relatively low point for Putin was in 2014, when Russia was hit with sanctions over the intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. However, he quickly turned that around by stepping up Russian military efforts against Islamic State, bringing the bar up once again. The assassination of the Russian ambassador earlier this week appears to have been handled skilfully, Putin eschewing the aggression one might have expected and so wrong-footed his critics.

Yet Navalny could present a real challenge to the sitting president. He maintains a blog which criticises Putin and has become hugely popular, giving him traction on social media. Trained as a lawyer and highly intelligent, he presents as a straightforward politician with a firm stance against corruption within political establishments.

In the past he has been seen as a beacon of honesty in a sea of graft and grime. His grilling of senior management at government-friendly oil company Surgutneftegas over the firm's lack of transparency, despite a financial stake - about $2,000 in shares - within the company, is one intervention which has played particularly well with the public. 

In 2011, he founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which it claims is the sole NGO to "investigate, expose and fight corruption among high-ranking government officials.” The website regularly publishes exposés that level corruption allegations at people who are politically close to Vladimir Putin.

In short, he's been a real thorn in the government's side - and for their part, it would appear they've been doing what they can to stamp out his political influence for years, a sign they are worried about him.

Just as his popularity was growing, he was charged with embezzlement in 2013. After he was handed a five-year sentence and banned from running for election, there were protests and rallies, which were placated after the authorities mysteriously decided to release him on bail.  

In 2014, he was arrested after leading a 2,000-strong protest at the Kremlin. This resulted in him being put under house arrest, which he quickly declared he wouldn't comply with by cutting off his monitoring device. 

Thus far, he has avoided imprisonment - a move critics say is to stop him from becoming a martyr for his cause.

But that could change, for this month, the government decided to retrial Navalny on the 2013 case, a move derided by critics as politically motivated. While his ban against running in elections was lifted, it is likely to be reimposed if he is convicted.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) these cases, his popularity remains undiminished. For instance, in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, he won 27% of the vote in spite of being denied media attention and harrassed by the authorities.  

In a statement last week announcing his intention to run for president, Navalny said he aimed to talk about the issues that "everyone keeps silent about" - fairness, corruption, and economic development. 

With everything that has happened this year and in an ever-shifting political landscape, Alexei Navalny's chances of potentially securing a victory can't be ruled out.

"I will talk about those things everyone keeps silent about" - Alexei Navalny in his running anouncement