Since Vladimir Putin’s comeback last year, Russian politics has been marred by repression against civil society and the opposition groups, stifling of NGO activities, and legislative crackdown on dissent. A textbook example of electoral authoritarianism, Putin’s Russia is now moving toward hegemonic rule, putting the Kremlin’s new opponents behind bars and shutting down election-monitoring and human rights NGOs, now known as “foreign agents” in the Kremlin’s terminology. Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader who’s under house arrest, and State Duma deputy, Ilya Ponomarev, have been recently accused of plotting mass riots on May 6, a day before Putin’s inauguration in 2012. The leader of Russia’s protest movement, Alexey Navalny, is currently facing a dubious trial for machinations with timber sales while serving as an adviser to Kirov’s liberal governor Nikita Belykh three years ago. Amid this concerted state-run campaign against dissidence, the Kremlin allowed Navalny to register for Moscow mayoral race come September. Why in the world would authoritarian leadership allow its harshest critic to run for Moscow’s mayor?
Vladimir Putin and his ruling party United Russia have a strategy in mind, and their goal is to prove that even in Moscow, where hundreds of thousands demonstrators marched against flawed Duma elections and Putin’s return last year, the opposition has little chances of winning. The incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has been trying to create a façade of democratic elections in Russia’s most liberal city by letting all political forces partake in them. Helping Navalny with passing the filter required for participating in the game, Sobyanin and his coterie thus sought to solve the “legitimacy problem.” A corollary of this logic is that the Kremlin won’t have to deal with demonstrations against election rigging, since the opposition candidate was allowed to run, yet utterly failed. At this writing, independent polls give Navalny 3% versus 30% for the Kremlin’s protégé.
Today, the Putin regime is pursuing exactly the same strategies it once did throughout the 2000s. After jailing the oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin eviscerated any opposition to his rule. Inasmuch as Alexey Navalny is the Kremlin’s next target, his success or failure during the mayoral race will determine the future of Russia’s democratic momentum. Should he fail, the Kremlin’s confidence will be bolstered, and new, more serious, crackdowns on political and civil freedoms will ensue.