An unexpectedly strong result for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during Sunday’s mayoral elections in Moscow hasn't gone exactly as planned for the Kremlin.
What began as an experiment to placate a fractured protest electorate and hand incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin an easy, legitimate victory has ended dangerously for the Kremlin by producing a bona fide opposition force, observers say.
“Navalny has cemented his status as a real opposition politician on the national level,” says Pavel Salin, a political expert at the Russian government’s Finance University.
That’s exactly what the Kremlin had hoped to avoid by allowing Navalny — who was sentenced in July to five years in prison for alleged embezzlement — to run in the election.
Experts say the vote was aimed at eliminating the anti-corruption blogger from politics and proving that he and his protest-minded supporters are an insignificant minority.
But the official results released on Monday, which gave Sobyanin 51 percent of the vote against Navalny’s 27 percent, proved a symbolic defeat for the authorities. Those numbers stood in drastic contrast to an array of pre-election polls that had predicted a far greater gap.
Despite the impressive showing, Navalny and his campaign staff have cried foul, insisting that electoral fraud enabled Sobyanin to avoid a second-round runoff.
Thousands of supporters rallied in central Moscow on Monday night to protest the results, chanting “Second round!” and providing hints that the protest movement has regained a degree of momentum.
At the rally, Navalny heralded what he called the birth of a capable opposition movement.
“I know how to turn a political machine into a steamroller that will crush United Russia,” he told attendees, according to the Russian news agency Lenta.ru.
Now, observers say the Kremlin will be more hard pressed than ever before to ignore him and his army of supporters.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent dissident and political commentator, said Navalny’s meteoric rise may prompt the authorities to reconsider jailing the opposition leader, who is currently preparing his appeal.
Piontkovsky predicts that Navalny will receive a suspended sentence that will bar him from political competition but keep him out of prison.
“But that doesn’t change the political equation,” he said. “He is the leader of a so-called ‘non-systemic’ opposition which is becoming systemic.”
He says Navalny’s growing clout has split the political elite between those pushing for more openness and others usually represented by law enforcement agencies that back cracking down on the opposition.
That apparent dithering was on display during Navalny’s trial, when the authorities released him in a highly unusual move a day after his sentencing.
“This is a classic situation for an anti-authoritarian revolution: mass protests and a split in the elites,” Piontkovsky said. “We’ve seen it many times in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”
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Navalny’s electoral coup wasn’t the only disappointment for the Kremlin, however.
Opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman, a controversial anti-drug activist in central Russia, knocked out the United Russia candidate in the mayoral election in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city.
In historic Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, the liberal RPR-Parnas Party, which fielded Navalny in the Moscow vote, won seats in the regional legislature.
Salin, the political expert, says the small string of victories against the ruling party is a cause for concern for the authorities, whose gestures at freeing political competition, including the loosening of party registration rules, have backfired.
“This has demonstrated that if they begin to ease up, they lose control of the situation,” he said.