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.

Instead, Navalny carried out a grassroots get-out-the-vote effort -- he has said he took cues from episodes of “The Wire” -- in which he held meetings with voters outside of metro entrances and had teams of volunteers hand out fliers and post banners across the city. He brought in $3 million in donations, an accomplishment not to be underestimated in a country that has no culture of small-scale philanthropy and political giving. It was an unprecedented display of earnestness and initiative for the Putin era, a political age largely marked by a cynical detachment and mistrust of anything that carries even the whiff of formal politics.

Sobyanin, by contrast, campaigned in the familiar way. That is to say, barely at all. He relied on his image as a competent, benevolent technocrat whose very aloofness from the electorate is turned into a virtue. His tenure as Moscow mayor -- he was appointed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, making this his first election -- has indeed gone quite well, with everything from the city’s parks to its notorious parking situation improving under his watch. He didn’t meet directly with voters or participate in debates, but the state-run Channel One did feature him on prime-time news 24 times over just six weeks in July and August. Historically, that has been enough to push a pro-Kremlin candidate through to an easy victory when the opposing candidates were invisible and unexciting.

But the usual strategy backfired on Sobyanin. The turnout on election day was only 32 percent, and Sobyanin’s showing was much lower than expected. In past years, low turnout has favored the Kremlin’s candidate: the less fuss, the better, with only what Russian sociologists call the “disciplined electorate” tending to show up. But as Putin and his advisers began to worry about a potential weakening of their position, scant participation put them in a trap: so as to keep elections predictable, the authorities had to deemphasize -- if not discredit -- them, but that, in turn, undermined the legitimacy of those meant to govern.

That is, in part, why the Kremlin signed on for a controlled experiment, letting Navalny campaign largely unimpeded. Yet the Kremlin didn’t meet its own opening with particular initiative -- Sobyanin carried out a rather limp, detached campaign, allowing Navalny to suck up all the energy in the city. Andrei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, said that the Sobyanin electorate was left “disoriented” and “didn’t know what was demanded of it, didn’t know how to act.” And so, Grazhdankin told me, “They simply didn’t go to polling stations.”

Going forward, the old logic will be flipped: a low turnout will help opposition candidates, who have motivated voters they can bring to the polls. The Kremlin will have to find some way to not just rely on a passive electorate but to build up an energized base of its own. And that, more than anything, may be the most important -- and uncomfortable -- consequence for the authorities of this new proto-liberalization.

After widely fraudulent Duma elections in December 2011 prompted mass demonstrations -- the aftereffects of which the Kremlin is still dealing with -- the authorities are unlikely to risk resorting to blatant manipulations of vote counts, at least in Moscow. Indeed, as Grigory Melkonyants, the executive director of Golos, an election-monitoring NGO, told me, although “one can’t say the elections were absolutely fair” due to the many built-in advantages afforded to Sobyanin, Sunday’s vote passed “without serious falsifications.” A high number of independent monitors kept municipal election officials in check, he added.

Although Navalny has called for a recount, it appears that he has already made peace with his loss -- after all, for him, the mayoral race was always a testing ground for something larger. That’s why, for example, he used his appearance on debates televised on local Moscow stations to talk as much about traffic or utility bills as about figures such as Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire tycoon who was once Putin’s judo partner in St. Petersburg.

At a large rally at Bolotnaya Square on Monday night, Navalny said he would “convert the political machine that we have created in this election into a steamship” that would contest political battles “in all the cities of the country.” Not that anyone had any illusions, but he made his ultimate ambitions all the more clear, saying the real target lay across the Moscow River: the Kremlin.

For its part, the Kremlin seems not to know what to do with Navalny -- its handling of him has been unsteady and unconfident. In July, a court in Kirov convicted Navalny of embezzlement in a politically motivated trial and sentenced him to five years in prison. The very next day, in a moment virtually unprecedented in Putin-era jurisprudence, the judge freed him on appeal, cementing his heroic myth and setting up his run for Moscow mayor.

Putin can’t even manage to say Navalny’s name out loud in public, apparently afraid of conjuring him into being like an evil spirit, instead referring to him as “this gentleman” or to a questioner, “this figure you mentioned.” A few weeks back, a deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party told me, shaking his head, that he didn’t know what the authorities were doing with their confused strategy toward Navalny, other than “simply creating a biography for him.”

That is why the rise of Navalny is at once both the greatest success and the greatest weakness of the Russian opposition. His virtue is obvious: he is forceful and charming and clearly has the gift for politics. It is not hard to imagine him fighting for the presidency one day. But the fact that all of the energy and enthusiasm that burst out into the open in 2011 and 2012 has, nearly two years later, created Navalny and only Navalny is not ideal.

Real change will require party structures with functioning bureaucracies that depend not on one person’s ability to draw a crowd but on momentum all over the country. That is all the more true given that Navalny could well be sent back to prison after his appeals process runs its course.

On a local level, other leaders and movements are emerging. Evgeny Roizman, a colorful, at times abrasive anti-drug campaigner with ties to the opposition, was elected mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Other races across the country saw independent political figures gain office or seats on regional legislatures. Navalny’s one-of-a-kind campaign will not remain that way for long; Moscow city Duma elections will be held next year and a nationwide parliamentary vote will follow, in 2016.

Of course, Navalny lost, and it’s quite possible his supporters will lose energy and interest as the thrill of past battles wears off and Sobyanin’s new term takes shape. This may be the closest the Russian opposition has come to electoral success in some time -- but it’s still not victory. Nonetheless, one is left with the sense that even though the Kremlin manages to land punch after punch, winning each round on points, somehow the match isn’t going its way.

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  • JOSHUA YAFFA is a journalist in Moscow, where he is a contributor to The Economist, among other publications. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
  • More By Joshua Yaffa