Alexei Navalny has just been named one of the most influential internet stars in the world. His aim is to run in next year's Russian presidential election. But the Kremlin has laid a number of obstacles in his path.
The US magazine Time just named opposition politician and Anti-Corruption Foundation creator Alexei Navalny one of the "25 Most Influential People on the Internet." He came in at number eight, right behind the Korean boy group BTS and just ahead of US President Donald Trump.
"In a nation where practically all mass media are state-controlled, the Russian opposition activist has used YouTube to break through the Kremlin's information blockade," writes Time. Since Navalny is barred from appearing on Russian state media, he is dependent upon social media to get out his message. His YouTube channel has more than 1 million subscribers.
Campaign teams but no election date
Despite that Kremlin blockade, Navalny is gearing up for Russia's March 2018 presidential election. His goal is to replace Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Navalny began assembling his campaign team in February. By mid-June he had set up almost 50 regional teams.
"We are now represented in every Russian city with more than 1 million residents - and, with the exceptions of Novokuznetsk and Tolyatti, in almost every city with a population exceeding half a million," his website announced recently. "120,000 volunteers are in action for Navalny's campaign in those cities, which, in total, make up half of Russia's population."
In reply, Russia's Central Election Commission announced that at the moment, "No official presidential election campaigns are taking place in the Russian Federation." And that the "formation of campaign teams in support of Navalny" is not in accordance with Russian election law.
Ivan Zhdanov, a legal expert for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, told the Russian daily newspaper Vedomosti that even though the official election campaign would not start until November or December, every candidate has the right to run a public campaign.
Authorities: Navalny ineligible
Furthermore, the election commission explained that Navalny is ineligible to stand for election because he has a criminal record, which in turn resulted in his loss of the right to vote. In February, Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement, and given a five year suspended sentence by a court in the city of Kirov. The opposition leader denied the charges and claimed the trial had been undertaken to keep him from standing for election in the 2018 presidential vote. Navalny declared his intention to run in December 2016.
After a Russian appeals court upheld the verdict in May, Navalny's legal team announced it would take its case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.
"Russia has done nothing to address the violations of the Kirov trial," Navalny's lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, told the Russian news agency Interfax. "I am certain that the ECHR will decide in our favor once again."
In February 2016, the ECHR condemned Russia for having arbitrarily arrested Navalny in a similar case that took place in 2013. And this February, the ECHR ordered Russia to pay more than 63,000 euros ($70,500) in compensation to Navalny for having violated his right to peaceful protest by arresting and detaining him several times during demonstrations in Moscow between 2012 and 2014.
Leonid Volkov, who heads Navalny's campaign team, is also confident. He says the team's strategy is to build political pressure. "Come December, the Kremlin should have no option but to let Navalny stand as a candidate," he said.
The path to candidacy
Presidential candidates cannot be officially nominated until the exact election date is announced at the end of this year. Russian law allows two paths to participation: as a self-registering candidate, or as a party candidate.
Only the first path is open to Navalny, since the Ministry of Justice of Russia has banned his Progress Party. Therefore, he will have to register an initiative group with at least 500 members - all of whom must be Russian citizens with the right to vote - with the Central Election Commission. And after that he will have to present the commission with at least 300,000 voter signatures. Navalny's team cannot yet begin collecting signatures, but at the moment some 450,000 Russians on the internet have already declared that they support his nomination as a presidential candidate.