Who else but Navalny? Kremlin critic’s illness a blow to campaigners to break Putin’s grip

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s sudden illness has unleashed his strategy to challenge Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in the upcoming regional elections. But it also exposes a longer-term issue – the leadership vacuum within Russia’s opposition.

FILE PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny awaits the start of a hearing before the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on his case against Russia at the court in Strasbourg, France, on November 15, 2018. REUTERS / Vincent Kessler / File photo

Navalny, 44, now in a Berlin hospital after a suspected poisoning, had urged supporters to vote tactically in mid-September for candidates running against the ruling party of Russia.

Russia will elect 18 governors, including local parliamentarians and city councilors, to vote across the country, which is effectively a dry run for September 2021 parliamentary elections.

Although Putin – in his fourth term – looks like a Russian leader, the election takes place amid frustration over years of falling wages and a coronavirus blockade that lowered his appreciation for approval after two decades.

Before Navalny fell ill on August 20 on a flight from Siberia to Moscow, he had launched his campaign as a long-term strategy to short-circuit a political system that often prevented his allies from fighting elections while running less outspoken opponents of other parties.

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin spokesman, asked if anyone else had the political weight to take the helm of the campaign.

“To force voters to vote en masse, you need someone who is very authoritarian,” he said.

Under Navalny’s poor voting plan, supporters receive emails on the eve of regional and local elections telling them to vote for a specific candidate running against United Russia.

The strategy haunted United Russia in 2019, when it lost a third of its seats in the Moscow city elections.

But while the campaign largely failed outside of Moscow, the momentum has recently gained from massive anti-Kremlin protests in the Far East, fueled by the arrest of a governor who had scored a rare election victory against United Russia in 2018 .

Navalny’s team will push ahead on the strategic voice campaign, said its ally Leonid Volkov.

“It is clear that it is extremely uncomfortable for us that Navalny has been temporarily taken out of action,” he told Reuters, vowing to do everything possible “to compensate for his temporary absence so that smart mood wins.”

German doctors say Navalny may have been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor, a substance also used in nerve toxins such as one used in the 2018 poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in England.

The Kremlin says the poisoning diagnosis is not exclusive.

Who’s the leader?

So who could set up within the fragmented opposition if Navalny was months, or even permanently, undiminished?

Navalny rose to prominence during the 2011 demonstrations, being the undisputed leader of the opposition outside official structures.

His YouTube videos describing allegations of corruption against officials reach millions of Russians, making him a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.

“Obviously, what happened was aimed at dissuading the opposition,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Center’s think tank in Moscow.

But a source close to the Kremlin said smart votes had irritated the government, but were not really a major threat. The opposition faced a bigger problem, the person said, adding:

“He is bright, young, handsome, famous, has found his own style … when will the same appear? Not soon.”

But Volkov said the voting strategy was not tied to Navalny the person. In addition to Volkov, another Navalny ally is Lyubov Sobol, a 32-year-old lawyer who was prominent in protests last year in Moscow. Other allies include activists Ivan Zhdanov and Georgy Alburov.

Sobol declined to be interviewed for this article.

Russia’s opposition leadership is an unappealing statement.

Navalny has repeatedly targeted pro-Kremlin activists, was attacked in 2016 during a trip to southern Russia and twice in 2017 when a green dye was thrown at him, temporarily losing sight of him in one eye.

His brother’s 2014 jail term for fraud was also seen by many as politically motivated.

“This challenges the opposition to seek a new leader. But something new will appear. A holy place will never remain empty, ‘said the Kremlin-linked source.

Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; edited by Sujata Rao and Angus MacSwan

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