There's just no escaping Aleksei Navalny.
Whether one thinks he's Russia's greatest hope, or the most dangerous man in Russia, he is absolutely dominating the conversation right now.
The ruling United Russia party is complaining
about his online fundraising, as is Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Television personality Ksenia Sobchak is worried
about his aggressive tone, Vladimir Putin still won't utter his name
in public, but even he can't avoid talking
And with good reason. How the Navalny story winds up will probably tell us a lot about how this turbulent and important chapter in Russian history that began with the castling
of September 2011 -- and whose plot thickened with the rise
of the protest movement -- will finally end.
And both friends and foes of the anticorruption blogger-turned-opposition leader know it.
Take Navalny foe Sergei Markov, the pro-Putin political analyst who tends to either parrot or telegraph the dominant party line.
Writing in "The Moscow Times
" this week, Markov manages to cram in every Kremlin-sponsored meme about Navalny out there: he's just "a blogger" and "what kind of profession is that"; he's planning an "Orange Revolution"; he is a project of Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder and the "global oligarchy"; he was recruited while studying at Yale University to overthrow the Russian government; and, of course, he is a dangerous nationalist.
How one can be a tool of the West, a project of the global oligarchy, and a Russian nationalist all at the same time isn't really explained. But never mind.
"Navalny is reminiscent of" former President Boris "Yeltsin, whom Russia fell in love with initially in the early 1990s, although he was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the impoverishment of millions of Russians," Markov concludes.
"Twenty years ago, Yeltsin infected the country with an aggressive virus. But I am sure that Russians can stop Navalny's virus from spreading and crippling the country. We have the antibodies to fight this disease, which was developed in special laboratories in the West."
On the other side of the ramparts is Stanislav Belkovsky, the rambunctious and bombastic political commentator for "Moskovsky komsomolets" and a well-known Navalny booster.
In a highly entertaining piece
last week, Belkovsky cuts right to the chase, only half ironically calling Navalny a "messiah" whose work of saving Russia has only just begun.
Contrary to popular belief, Belkovsky writes, Navalny isn't really running for mayor of Moscow. He's in the "quarterfinal duel between Good and Evil." And his opponent isn't incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. "What are you thinking?" he writes. "His opponent is Vladimir Putin, head of the Bloody Regime. The semifinal will take place in the next State Duma elections. The final will be the battle for the presidency."
The funny thing about the the Markov and Belkovsky articles is that despite their different premises, they come to exactly the same conclusion: this man is serious and he is playing for keeps.
And the audacity of Navalny, this chutzpah to take on the Putin juggernaut head-on, has fast-forwarded and brought new urgency to what was a slow-burning and low-intensity conflict between the authorities and the opposition.
Like him or not, Navalny is forcing the Kremlin's foes to make a choice.
"Know that by coming out against Navalny, you are coming out against the Bolotnaya prisoners. Against those who came out alongside of you and who were seized on your behalf in order to make you afraid," political activist Maria Baronova wrote on her blog on Ekho Moskvy
, which was cited by Belkovsky.
"You are coming out against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev having a chance to be freed... You are coming out against any changes in Russia, however small. Because until Navalny wins, there will be no new people. No new politicians. No new ideas."
The Moscow mayoral election on September 8 can be looked at, as Belkovsky suggests, as the "quarterfinal" match in Navalny's battle against the ruling regime. It can also be seen as a dry run to test the strength of his political operation.
Few expect Navalny to win in the formal sense. The key question is whether he will perform well enough to fight another day.
"The main element of suspense in this election is what will happen on the morning of September 9," Belkovsky wrote. "At the moment when the preliminary results are announced, what will the people of Moscow say and where will they go?
-- Brian Whitmore