Navalny's Victory in Defeat

A Losing Bid For Mayor Could Make Him King

A woman holds a sign and a flag in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally in Moscow.
A woman holds a sign and a flag in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally in Moscow, September 9, 2013. The flag reads "Change Russia. Start from Moscow." The sign (upside down) reads "Navalny." (Maxim Shemetov / Courtesy Reuters)

You could say that Sergei Sobyanin, the acting mayor of Moscow, was both the winner and the loser of Sunday’s mayoral election in Moscow. He was pronounced victorious with 51 percent of the vote, insuring himself control for the next five years of Russia’s capital, its nearly 12 million citizens, and its $52 billion annual budget. For these reasons, plus the job’s outsized influence and profile, it is considered the most powerful elected office in the country after the presidency itself.

Yet Sobyanin’s victory will leave him less than fully confident. He will enter office a wounded political figure, with not as much of a resounding mandate than he had hoped. And that unease should extend to entirety of the Russian political system, including to President Vladimir Putin. The reason is Alexei Navalny, an anticorruption activist and blogger who, over the last two years, has turned himself into the opposition’s one clear star -- and its most credible candidate for political office.

From the beginning, Sobyanin had wanted Navalny in the race, even going so far as to help Navalny gather the necessary signatures for the ballot, because he presumed he could defeat him easily. At the start of the summer, state-connected pollsters were giving Navalny a likely 10 percent of the vote at most. By squashing the opposition’s best hope in a clean race, Sobyanin hoped to strengthen the overall position of the Kremlin while augmenting his own personal political weight among the elite.

Navalny and his campaign team managed to upend those expectations. By last week, most pollsters thought that as much as 20 percent of the vote was within Navalny’s reach and, should he attain it, would be a sign of his political skills and future potential. In the end, he took 27 percent of the vote, according to the official count. He did that without access to federal television or to the sort of advantages afforded to pro-Kremlin incumbents, such as legions of loyal, state-employed voters or the ability to blend official duties and campaign activity.

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