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Interview: Kremlin Warning To Navalny About Election Boycott Serves As Fuel For His Campaign


Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has called for voters to boycott the March 18 presidential election after he was officially barred from being a candidate. His call for people not to vote led Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to issue a warning, saying that Navalny's call for a boycott should be "studied" to see if it violates the law.

Independent political analyst Nikolai Petrov tells RFE/RL from Moscow that Russian officials are unlikely to harass Navalny, in order to deny the anticorruption activist the publicity he seeks. Since he is unable to campaign for president, Navalny is likely to campaign across Russia for a boycott of the election, much to Moscow's dismay, Petrov adds.

RFE/RL: Did Navalny break the law in some way by making this call for a boycott?

Nikolai Petrov: You know, nothing can be excluded but, first of all, I don't think this is really a legal issue, this is a political issue, and second, I don't think the Kremlin is interested in any kind of radical move with regard to Navalny.

The problem for Navalny now is how to keep from being invisible, [how to be] loud without any real participation in the election. So I would suppose that he should provoke the Kremlin and the Kremlin now is not in a position to let Navalny become visible -- including at the expense of any public scandals [or] at the expense of [taking] any tough moves against Navalny.

RFE/RL: So you think Navalny is intentionally trying to provoke the authorities into coming after him so that he could gain publicity?

Petrov: Yes, absolutely. He should campaign without being a legal participant of the race and...Navalny [has] already benefitted from this election much more than any other candidate will benefit after [the] election is over. He did establish this network of headquarters in the regions. He became very visible, very reactive, and I think this is a great achievement. The problem now is how to keep this machine working without any real participation in the election [as a candidate].

RFE/RL: Do you think he will continue to make this plea [to voters] to boycott the election and make that his campaign?

Petrov: Absolutely, and I don't think [the boycott] can really influence the outcome [of the election] in an essential way, but it will help Navalny to keep the political machine that he has constructed [to keep] working, moving.

RFE/RL: Is there any way at all that the authorities could somehow twist the law or use his call for a boycott to cause more legal problems for Navalny?

Petrov: It's Russia, so authorities can easily decide to [restrict] Navalny, [although] there are no legal grounds by which to do this. Or, they can arrest him.

But I don't think that any of these radical [measures] is in their interest. They are now more interested in keeping silent and letting Navalny keep a low profile. And that's why Navalny will be more active and the authorities, I suppose, will be more passive in this confrontation.

Aleksei Navalny greets supporters during an authorized rally in Astrakhan in October.
Aleksei Navalny greets supporters during an authorized rally in Astrakhan in October.

RFE/RL: One thing Russian officials did in 2006 was to remove from the presidential ballots the option to vote for "none of the above." Is there something else similar that the authorities have done over the years to manage Russia's democracy?

Petrov: Absolutely. The Navalny example can serve [as a] pretty good case because the law which makes it impossible for Navalny to be registered now [appeared] after [the] 2012 [presidential election]. At that time it was called the [former Russian tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky-Navalny law.

So the idea was how to exclude these guys from [participating] in [upcoming] elections.... So, some experts are saying that the law violates the constitution -- and that could be the case -- but the Constitutional Court ruled that it is OK. And this is another example of how authorities react even to avoid...complications that could appear in the future.... You know, all the time there are ongoing electoral reforms [in Russia] and every time after elections the authorities are trying to adjust the system in order to avoid some problems which appeared in the last elections.

RFE/RL: Are there some other ways that officials put restrictions on opposition candidates?

Petrov: Another form is turnout. [There] was a certain [minimum] for turnout in local, regional, and national elections. [That's] no longer the case so, regardless of how many voters will come to the polling stations, elections can be announced [and recognized as being valid].

RFE/RL: And that all fits into Russian President Vladimir Putin's ability to manage democracy -- is this all part of the scheme?

Petrov: Well, it's pretty complicated to speak about "managed democracy" now because elements of democracy are disappearing; they are too weak. But I would speak instead about the threat to elections in general.

Our authorities do need elections just like any autocrats in any part of the world [need them]. And the elections are potentially a source of trouble for the authorities so they need to do something in order to adjust, in order to get the results needed and to avoid unneeded results -- to avoid complications. But we see now, I would say, the whole campaign is [being] defined by Navalny rather than by the Kremlin. Due to the potential threat of Navalny [there was] the [possibility of the] nonparticipation [of]...young voters [and] Putin became so active with regard to youths that Ksenia Sobchak [appeared]; that instead of the old-fashioned leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, [running for president], we see now a new face. And [all of these things are the result of] Navalny. So I would say that his contribution to this election is much bigger, so far, than the Kremlin.

RFE/RL: So he's succeeding, you would say, despite all of these measures being taken again him. Would you describe his efforts thus far as highly successful -- he's bringing change?

Petrov: Yes, yes. Well, you know, it's not that he's getting whatever he wants. He's trying to do as much as possible but it doesn't mean that he calculated [that he'd get exactly] this result, but it means, we can say, the reactive adjustment, the reactive modernization of the system is going on, partly and to a large extent due to Navalny's efforts.

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