1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The opposition man captivating Russia's youth

Roman Goncharenko
January 29, 2018

Alexei Navalny is seen as one of Russia's most influential opposition politicians, but he has been barred from running for president in March. Now he has urged his supporters to boycott the vote.

Russian opposition activist and protest movement leader Alexei Navalny
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/A. Finistre

On Sunday, several thousand people throughout Russia protested against the presidential election in March. It is widely expected that the current president, Vladimir Putin, will win for the fourth time. There were hundreds of arrests — some of the rallies, like the ones in the center of Moscow, were not authorized.

The man who called for the protests, Alexei Navalny, is not allowed to run for Russia's highest office because of his criminal convictions for embezzlement. The 41-year-old is seen as one of the most influential opposition voices in Russia. No one can mobilize the masses, particularly young people, like Navalny can. But his most recent appeal did not prove as successful as the one in March of last year, when some 20,000 people took to the streets to protest against corruption and the current government.

Shut out of the presidential election

Navalny was the first to announce his presidential candidacy in 2016, subsequently establishing a network of electoral offices from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. He probably suspected that he would be ultimately barred from seeking the presidency. In December last year, Navalny was notified by the Central Election Committee of the Russian Federation that he would not be able to run because of a criminal conviction.

Navalny has in recent years been the subject of a number of financial crimes investigations. In two cases, he was tried and given suspended prison sentences. The European Court of Human Rights (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 in February 2017.

Protests in Moscow
People throughout Russia took to the streets on January 28 to protest against the presidential electionImage: Reuters/M. Shemetov

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.

It was a similar story 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." But once again, the ECHR said it saw no political motivation behind the Russian court's decision.

From blogger to opposition leader

Born in 1976 in a town southwest of Moscow, Navalny studied law before embarking on a political career in the liberal Yabloko party. He was later expelled from the organization amid claims made by Yabloko's leader and founder, Grigory Yavlinsky, that he had engaged in nationalist activities. Afterward, Navalny joined Russian March, a right-wing nationalist and xenophobic movement. Later on, he partially distanced himself from his activities in the group.

Protester in Vladivostok
'I don't have a choice!' — a protester holds up a sign in the eastern city of VladivostokImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Khitrov

Navalny owes his popularity mostly to the internet, as Russian mainstream television stations depict him as a puppet of the West. Navalny rose to fame as a blogger and anti-corruption fighter and now has around 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube alone.

His trademark blend of mockery and irony seems to go over well with his supporters. Navalny struck the right chord during protests against the parliamentary elections at the end of 2011 when he called the country's ruling party, United Russia, "crooks and thieves." During the street protests in Moscow at the time, Navalny was only one of many opposition leaders. Now he has claimed this role for himself, drawing criticism in the process.

For over a year now, the politician has been making videos about corrupt Russian elites, targeting figures like the prosecutor general and the prime minister.

The views of a Putin opponent

Navalny positions himself as a liberal politician and Putin's main challenger. His election campaign promises include an "anti-corruption revolution," an increased minimum wage and the construction of new streets and hospitals. His foreign policy promises include ending the wars Russia is fighting in other countries like Ukraine and Syria. Nonetheless, he remains vague on Crimea, only promising "a legitimate solution in the interest of the local population."

Strengths and weakness of a young politician

Navalny's greatest political achievement was his bid for mayor of Moscow in 2013 when he came in second with around 27 percent of the vote. Since then, his popularity has increased in Russia, but his approval rating lingers in the single digits.

Still, like no other politician in Russia at the moment, Navalny has the young generation on his side. During the protests in 2017, a particularly large number of high school students responded to his appeals. Many people see this as a disadvantage, for he has not yet been able to reach the broad public. Navalny also does not have a strong party behind him. His Party of Progress, founded in 2012, was not even registered by Russian authorities.