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Barred From Running, Barred From Boycotting: A Russian Candidate’s Quandary

Mr. Navalny’s exclusion from the March election “casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and the prospect of democratic elections next year,” the European Union’s foreign service said in a statement on Tuesday.

“We won’t have an election because Vladimir Putin is horribly afraid — he sees a threat in competing with me,” Mr. Navalny, 41, said in a video that, anticipating the decision to bar him, he recorded before the ban was announced. “The process in which we are called to participate is not a real election. It will feature only Putin and the candidates which he has personally selected.”

That the Kremlin is afraid of Mr. Navalny is in no doubt. His name is taboo on state-controlled television, unless he is being found guilty of fraud, organizing illegal protests or other alleged crimes. Polling organizations linked to the state don’t include his name when they ask people what they think of leading political figures.

What’s confusing, however, is exactly what the Kremlin has to fear.

Allowing Mr. Navalny to compete in March might help Mr. Putin solve one of his biggest problems: how to turn an election that promises to be little more than a tedious coronation into a contest with a frisson of excitement. A low turnout is something the Kremlin desperately wants to avoid.

Opinion polls conducted by the independent Levada Center show Mr. Putin’s approval rating at around 80 percent and indicate that he would crush Mr. Navalny in a race. A Levada poll in early December found that 66 percent of respondents who said they planned to vote would choose Mr. Putin, with only 2 percent favoring Mr. Navalny. That is far below the 27 percent of the vote that Mr. Navalny received when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013.

Mr. Putin’s old friend and handpicked prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, recently dismissed Mr. Navalny, without mentioning his name, as a “rogue” trusted by nobody. But the state media apparatus has still gone to great lengths to airbrush him out of Russia’s otherwise somnolent political landscape, seemingly reluctant even to utter his name.

But Mr. Putin, having watched last year’s presidential election in the United States, appears to worry that polls cannot be trusted and that a long-shot rival could, if not win, at least perform much better than expected.

“Once someone is on the ballot, even someone who is considered a sure loser, the outcome is no longer under control,” said William Taubman, professor emeritus at Amherst College and author of a new biography of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. “Witness Trump’s unexpected success, to which Putin was more than an interested observer, but, apparently, a contributor.”

Both President Trump and Mr. Putin, Mr. Taubman said, “want not only to be winners, but big winners. In Putin’s case, even if Navalny can’t win, if the effect of his running were to reduce Putin’s margin of victory as compared to past elections, that would be — or would seem to Putin — as humiliating.”

Having excluded Mr. Navalny from the ballot, the Kremlin worries that he could still cause Mr. Putin headaches by urging voters to stay at home. That might undercut efforts to gin up enthusiasm for an election that was meant to showcase public excitement at the prospect of Mr. Putin becoming the longest-serving leader in the Kremlin since Stalin.

Dmitri Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman and a target of Mr. Navalny’s investigations into the curious wealth of senior officials and their family members, said on Tuesday that Mr. Navalny’s calls for an election boycott “will require scrupulous study to see whether or not they comply with the law.” The statement opened the way for an investigation by law enforcement agencies and possible criminal prosecution against Mr. Navalny and his aides.

One of those aides, Leonid Volkov, his campaign manager, received a 30-day jail sentence this month for organizing a rally in Nizhny Novgorod, the city where Mr. Putin last month announced his own candidacy for the presidency to uproarious applause and cheering from workers in a local auto factory.

Mr. Navalny’s supporters reported on Tuesday that the crackdown was expanding, with raids on their offices in at least two cities, Tula and Orenburg. “See, they’re very afraid,” said one, Victor Shaveddinov, in a Facebook post detailing actions by the authorities since the weekend.

In Soviet-era elections, winners got nearly 100 percent of the vote. While Mr. Putin may not expect to match that, he would like to win his fourth and probably last presidential election with more than the 63 percent he secured in 2012.

Something else may also be weighing on Mr. Putin’s mind: the memory of the mass street protests that broke out in Moscow in the winter of 2012-13 and, even more upsetting, the protests in Ukraine four years ago that forced the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, from office and into self-imposed exile in Russia.

“Putin is afraid of letting Navalny into public politics because Navalny has a great potential to mobilize: people will go out for him” onto the streets, said Aleksandr Morozov, a Moscow political analyst.

Mr. Navalny has repeatedly proved his ability to mobilize people, particularly young, well-educated Russians, by organizing a series of nationwide protests in defiance of official bans.

Mr. Navalny is unlike most other nominally opposition Russian politicians, who rely on Kremlin support, never criticize Mr. Putin and make little effort to connect with voters. He has crisscrossed the country, rallying crowds with a message that Mr. Putin and his lieutenants are irredeemably corrupt and neglectful of ordinary people’s interests.

At his year-end news conference this month, Mr. Putin, asked if the government was “literally afraid of genuine competition,” gave vent to his contempt for the protests that, in a series of so-called color revolutions, toppled seemingly immovable leaders across the former Soviet Union.

“It is important to not just make noise out there on public squares or behind the scenes, and talk about a regime that is against the people,” he said. “It is important to offer something, some improvement.”

Mr. Putin, while not uttering Mr. Navalny’s name, compared him to Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who came to power after street demonstrations and who now, as an opposition politician in Ukraine, has rallied protesters against President Petro O. Poroshenko.

“The people you mention are Saakashvilis,” Mr. Putin said when asked about Mr. Navalny. “You want them to destabilize the situation in the country?”

Mr. Navalny, by acting like an ordinary politician who seeks to win over voters rather than just relying on money and media support from the state, stands in open opposition to the Kremlin’s efforts to create what it calls “managed democracy” — an increasingly authoritarian system in which criticism is tolerated but only if it avoids challenging the czar-like president.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, a Russian scholar at the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies in Warsaw, said Mr. Putin wanted not only to win but do so in a manner befitting his self-image as an almost mystical figure who commands the trust of all his people. Letting Mr. Navalny compete would mean letting him appear on television and forcing Mr. Putin to mention his name, breaking the spell.

“Mr. Putin, being Russia’s leader — or rather, as he believes, the country’s patron — for close to 20 years, sees his position not as a function as most Western leaders do, but rather as a sacred mission. He deeply believes in his predestination, in his role in the history of Holy Russia,” Mr. Inozemtsev said.

When Mr. Navalny’s supporters met to nominate him over the weekend, they gathered in a tent on the banks of the Moscow River because, as is usually the case when they want to meet, nobody would rent them a room indoors.

Mr. Putin’s nomination on Tuesday, in contrast, was held in a well-heated pavilion at a Stalin-era park and exhibition center. The president, unlike Mr. Navalny, did not show up for his own nomination event, held in hall decorated with a giant map of Russia emblazoned with the words “Strong President, Strong Russia.”

Source: NYT > World

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