Alexei Navalny wants to become Russia's president in 2018. Yet the election commissioner has said a prior conviction blocks his path to the Kremlin. Will the opposition politician grow tired and quit?
At this point, Alexei Navalny has probably lost count of how many times he has been arrested. Since 2011, the influential opposition politician has spent 127 days behind bars – mostly for participating in political protests. However, when he is released on Sunday, after having spent 20 days in a Moscow jail cell, things will have changed. One thing, more than any, will likely affect his future: Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Central Election Committee of the Russian Federation, made it clear on October 17 that Navalny will be barred from participating in the country's 2018 presidential election. The reason that she gave for the decision was a prior conviction for economic crimes.
With that, the presidential candidacy of the 41-year-old lawyer, who made a name for himself as an anti-Kremlin and corruption-fighting blogger, appears to have ended before the election has even begun. Nationwide demonstrations by his supporters, most recently on October 7, seem to have done nothing to help his cause. Pamfilova said that the government will not allow itself to be extorted by street protests. Appeals from the Council of Europe, which asked that Navalny be allowed to run, also seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow.
The opposition politician has yet to receive an official rejection, as the application process is not due to begin until December, according to media sources.
All hopes on Strasbourg
Although Pamfilova made similar statements this summer and most observers seem confident that Navalny will be barred from running, until now he has continued to act as if he has a chance. Apparently, decisions handed down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seemed to give him hope.
Over the past few years Navalny has been the subject of a number of investigations for economic crimes. In two cases, he was tried and given suspended prison sentences. The ECHR found the Russian court's decision in the first case, in which he was convicted of embezzlement from a state timber company in Kirov, to have been arbitrary.
ECHR judges in Strasbourg, however, did not see a political motivation behind the verdict. The case went to a retrial, which resulted in Navalny and his former business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov, being found guilty again last February.
But in September, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe concluded that the ECHR's decision had not been fully acknowledged and appealed to Moscow to let Navalny stand for election. Moscow saw this as an attempt by Europe to meddle in Russia's internal affairs.
The situation was similar in the second case, in which Navalny was accused of embezzling money from a Russian firm affiliated with the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. On October 17, the ECHR declared that the trial against Navalny and his brother Oleg had been unfair, saying that the Russian court's decision was "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable." Once again, the ECHR said it saw no political motivation behind the Russian court's decision.
Navalny was allowed to run as a candidate for the office of mayor of Moscow during a pause between trials in September 2013. He came in second in the race, winning 27 percent of the vote. It seems that the opposition politician envisions that the 2018 presidential election could have a similar outcome.
Campaigning across Russia
Navalny announced his candidacy for the office of president early on, in December 2016. Since then, he has been traveling the country, making campaign appearances and opening some 80 campaign offices from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.
None of that has been easy: Rent contracts have been canceled at the last minute and campaign workers have suffered provocations. In September, the head of his Moscow campaign office was attacked with a metal pipe on the street.
Navalny cemented his claim as leader of Russia's opposition with spectacular nationwide demonstrations, for which thousands of mainly young Russians turned out, in March and June of 2017. The last time that Russia experienced demonstrations of that scale was back in the winter of 2011/2012, between parliamentary and presidential elections. Navalny was already an opposition leader at the time, one positioning himself squarely against President Vladimir Putin.
A problem for Putin?
Putin has yet to announce whether he will run for his fourth term as president since the year 2000, but most observers assume that the Kremlin boss will do just that. Yet, Navalny would not seem to pose much of a threat. Every opinion poll available points to a clear victory for the incumbent. Navalny would likely only gain about 10 percent of the vote.
Experts say that, in the Kremlin's eyes, the biggest threat would be posed by the potential for Navalny to mobilize his supporters to protest the legitimacy of the election results – as was the case with accusations of corruption swirling around parliamentary elections in 2011.
"Even if he were only able to get a small number of people to take to the streets, the Kremlin is aware that the outcome of protests is always an unknown," as Russian political scientist Abbas Gallyamov told DW in early October. "Navalny's only chance is if the presidential administration determines that he is harmless – on par with someone like Ksenia Sobchak."
Nevertheless, it seems that Navalny has no intention of giving up just yet. He was scheduled to take part in a campaign event in Astrakhan, a two-hour flight from Moscow, after his release from prison on Sunday.