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Navalny is useful for Putin

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Juri Rescheto
December 15, 2016

Russia’s most famous opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, is running for president in 2018. That would be good for Russian democracy, but also for President Vladimir Putin, says Juri Rescheto.

Russland Oppositionsführer Alexej Nawalny
Image: Getty Images/AFP/K. Kudryavtsev

Alexei Navalny for president? That's the question Russians are now pondering, even though Navalny's candidacy was just a question of time. A time during which the former blogger and businessman was being investigated in connection with the so-called Kirovles embezzlement case. Now, though, the case against him has been dropped, and the path is free for Navalny to run for president in March 2018.

Does Vladimir Putin, who will certainly also run again, have anything to fear from this anti-corruption campaigner and Kremlin critic? Hardly! He should be happy about Navalny's candidacy. As should the entire Russian opposition, as paradoxical as it may sound.

Notable success in Moscow election

Until now, the informal leader of the opposition movement only had ambitions for the office of mayor of Moscow. He ran in 2013, and lost against Putin's candidate, Sergei Sobyanin. But it was a respectable run. Navalny got 27 percent of the vote, double what the polls had predicted. The papers heralded it as "the emergence of a new political force to be reckoned with in the biggest country in the world." The joy among critically-minded Russians was great.

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DW's Juri Rescheto

But it was likely Navalny's opponent, Sobyanin, who had the most cause for celebration. He had just won the election against the country's new up-and-coming politician! And not just against the pseudo-opposition made up of the Communists and the so-called "Liberal Democrats."

And today? The situation is similar: Navalny is the second to throw his hat in the ring. The co-founder of the (real) opposition party Jabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, has already declared his candidacy. Further candidates are sure to follow. Among the likely names: The head of the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov, the populist and right-wing extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the head of the Just Russia party, Sergey Mironov. All are well-known entities to Russian voters.

Yavlinsky is said to be the more competent candidate, particularly on economic issues, but he is less charismatic than Navalny - especially in the opinion of younger voters. The other three have already run in presidential elections in the past. For years, they have gamely played their roles as members of Russia's sham opposition - but all three are toothless tigers.

A household name in Russia

So now, the president of the biggest country in the world has the chance to win against a serious candidate, someone who is now known across Russia. Navalny's revelations of shameless corruption in the highest echelons of Russian power have made him a household name from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. That's thanks mainly to the internet, the most powerful weapon in the former blogger's arsenal, and a tool he will surely make massive use of in the upcoming campaign. It's a weapon that doesn't follow the traditional vertical hierarchies of power. Information on the internet doesn't spread from top to bottom, but rather horizontally, and in the blink of an eye.

And the opposition? They should also be happy because there will finally be some movement in Russian politics. That is, as long as the investigation against Navalny on charges of embezzlement is not reinstated. But given the nature of the Russian justice system, a last-minute re-opening of the case preventing Navalny from standing for election cannot be ruled out.

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief