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A decisive election for Kremlin critic Navalny

Young Russian blogger and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny hoped to become Moscow's new mayor after Sunday's vote. The election, viewed as a test for the political opposition, could decide his personal fate.

It's a Sunday evening in Moscow in late August. A young man, Alexei Navalny - in jeans and a black jacket - is on stage near the Sokolniki metro station. The 37-year-old lawyer is Russia's best-known oppositional blogger, who has made a name for himself as a fighter of corruption. In Moscow's mayoral election, which was moved forward to September 8, 2013, he hopes to become the Russian capital's new boss.

Nearly 5,000 people have come to the campaign event, far more than usual. It's almost over as a number of policemen surround the stage. The crowd shouts "Shame!" but Navalny jokes: "I believe the police wish to join our rally."

The Kremlin's cat-and-mouse game

The activist is taken away in a police bus and is released later that same evening. The reason for his arrest, according to the police, was the need to "discuss" violations at the event.

The incident is symbolic of the challenges facing the opposition activist in the Moscow mayoral election. On July 18, Navalny was convicted to five years of prison in a controversial trial for embezzlement as the former adviser to a timber company in the city of Kirov. Surprisingly, he was released the following day. The court ruled that Navalny would remain free pending final judgment.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Navalny was arrested and later released

Many Moscow observers say the Kremlin is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the popular leader of the opposition movement. Navalny was also accused of having accepted money for his campaign from abroad, a form of financing banned under Russian law. The Attorney General's Office confirmed the allegations. In today's Russia, few would have been surprised to hear that the opposition candidate was excluded from the election. But Navalny is still in the race.

The Moscow mayoral elections have special significance for Russia. The city is the largest and wealthiest in the county. The 12-million metropolis accounts for more than one fifth of the country's gross national product, according to official figures.

But Moscow is also the stronghold of the opposition movement that emerged in the winter of 2011 and 2012. The parliamentary and presidential elections at the time were overshadowed by allegations of election fraud. The ensuing protests were carried by the middle class and Navalny was one of its leaders.

Against this background, it seems all the more clear that Russian authorities are trying to make the mayoral election in Moscow appear democratic. Indeed, it is the first time in 10 years that Moscow residents can directly elect their mayor. Previously, the Russian president named a candidate who was confirmed by the city council.

Currently, six candidates are contending. The election campaign is "open and honest," Vladimir Platonov, chairman of the city council, recently wrote in his blog on the website of the radio station "Echo Moskwy."

Seemingly democratic

Experts like Denis Wolkov disagree. "A fair competition isn't what this election intends," the sociologist at the prestigious Moscow-based "Levada Center" told DW. The election has been moved ahead two years to give incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a confidante of President Vladimir Putin's, a good starting position.

Sobyanin has only been in office since 2010. Polls conducted by the Levada Center show the 55-year-old politician as the clear favorite, indicating that he could win up to 60 percent of the votes. Blogger Navalny is ranked second with about 18 percent. "Navalny was allowed to run for mayor when it was clear that he would achieve a good result but not pose a risk for authorities," Wolkov said.

Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobjanin

Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin is close to President Putin

Access to the Russian media, especially television, is also state-controlled. Although Sobyanin has refused to participate in televised debates, his statements are aired daily on television, according to Wolkov. Navalny and other candidates don't have the same access.

The blogger has tried to make a virtue of necessity. More than any other candidate, Nawalny has used the internet to mobilize his supporters. He has raised contributions over the web and revolutionized elections in Russia with thousands of volunteers.

A lesson for Putin?

The Russian opposition, however, isn't united in this election. Some criticize Navalny for taking votes from members of the Kremlin Party "United Russia" in the city council for his nomination - ironically from the very party whose legitimacy Navalny has consistently denied. Others accuse the blogger of right-wing populism.

The opposition activist wants to send thousands of immigrants back home and reintroduce visas for citizens of the former Soviet republics in central Asia. Gerhard Mangott from the University of Innsbruck believes his nationalistic tones could help Navalny win more votes. "We shouldn't forget that Navalny doesn't have much else to offer," he told DW. "His other topic is corruption."

Still, Navalny's nationalistic positions are a dilemma for liberal-minded members of the opposition: Can they afford to criticize the blogger at the expense of strengthening the Kremlin's candidate Sobyanin? Or should they remain silent?

Navalny and his supporter hope the mayoral election in Moscow will be a lesson for Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin. There is also talk about the election determining the opposition leader's fate: The more votes Navalny wins, the less likely he is to be convicted in the end. Whether that is true is questionable. But one thing is certain: Navalny supporters are expected to hit the streets in protest after the election. Wolkow from the Lewada Center expects as many as 30,000 to show up.

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