Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently launched a campaign to boycott Russia’s upcoming elections from which he has been banned. The police declared his protest illegal and arrested him, as they have done many times in the past, along with his campaign chief Leonid Volkov.
Navalny was banned from running in the March 18 election in December on the grounds of a suspended prison sentence that he claims was trumped up for the express purpose of keeping him off the ballot.
The persistent gadfly shifted tactics in February to boycotting the election, which he (and most other observers) see as a pointless contest between an all-but-invincible President Vladimir Putin and seven chumps lined up to create the illusion of a fair election. One objective of the boycott is to depress turnout so Putin will not be able to claim he was re-elected with a huge number of votes, even though he remains likely to win up to 80 percent of the votes cast.
“We want to tear Putin down from his pedestal,” Navalny supporter Vladimir Milov explained. “Putin will get a formal victory, but we want to make it a pyrrhic victory. We want to use the election to show that he doesn’t have as much support as he claims.”
“I’m definitely not alone, and I’m not some kind of dissident,” Navalny told NPR. “If you take any of my anti-corruption investigations or any points from my political platform, I’m sure the majority of Russian citizens would support me, and that’s why I wasn’t allowed to run.”
Polls of the Russian electorate cast doubt on Navalny’s ability to beat Putin outright, even if he was allowed to run and the ballot was not loaded with a half-dozen other decoy candidates to dilute the opposition vote, but he has a substantial online following and could poll well enough to improve his profile and cause Putin some headaches.
A self-described “person of the Internet,” 41-year-old Navalny’s lively social media feed includes announcements of his frequent arrests, as the Russian police periodically swing by his office to either detain him or chop his door into pieces searching for bombs. He told NPR he is worried about Putin’s “creeping expansion into the Internet” and believes the Russian government meddles in the elections of other countries, including the United States, using techniques honed against members of the domestic opposition. He does not, however, believe Putin’s mischief had a “significant effect” on the 2016 election.
Navalny’s latest arrest came on Thursday as he was leaving a dental appointment. He was released after an hour but told he was under investigation for organizing illegal protests. It is possible he will be arrested again and incarcerated throughout the election.
“They offered me a lift somewhere, but I declined and have gone to work. I don’t understand what happened, and why it took seven people to detain me,” he said after he was released.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s campaign chief, also announced his detention on Twitter and is reportedly still being held.
Navalny speculated he was released because the government does not want his next 30-day administrative detention to begin and end before the election is settled. “If they would jail me on 28 January, I would walk free on 28 February. But Putin wants me to be isolated right before the election, and preferably during the election,” he explained.
Since he has been barred from running in the election, banned from Russian television, and even his website has been partially shut down because he allegedly spread false information about a Russian billionaire, Navalny feels he has little recourse but to organize street protests. He has a substantial force of young activists handing out flyers with messages such as, “It’s not an election, it’s a trick” and gearing up to serve as election fraud monitors when the polls open.
Under current Russian law, this will be Vladimir Putin’s last election, as he will become too old to run again. The race is so lopsided in Putin’s favor that a bored electorate might deliver the low turnout Navalny wants, even if he spends March in jail.