Russian opposition leader believes he can beat Putin

Nataliya Vasilyeva
Associated Press

Moscow – As the most serious challenger during Vladimir Putin’s 18 years in power, Alexei Navalny has endured arrests, show trials and facefuls of green antiseptic that damaged his vision.

But in an interview Monday with The Associated Press, he said the biggest thing keeping him from becoming Russia’s next president is a political system that punishes him for rallying support and conspires to keep his face off the airwaves.

Putin’s approval rating is astronomical and he is widely expected to win another term with ease, but the fact that he won’t even say Navalny’s name suggests the anti-corruption crusader has struck a nerve. Navalny’s criminal record will probably keep him off the ballot — a sign, he says, of how much he frightens the political class.

Navalny, in his first interview since the start of the presidential campaign, said he would win it “if I am allowed to run and if I’m allowed to use major media.” And he said the Kremlin knows it.

“It’s the main reason they don’t want me to run,” he said. “They understand perfectly how ephemeral the support for them is.”

That support certainly looks strong: The latest independent poll, conducted this month by the Levada Center, suggests 75 percent of Russians would vote for Putin. People in much of Russia back Putin as a matter of course, and Navalny supporters are routinely heckled, arrested and fined when they try to spread their message.

But there are also signs that enthusiasm for Putin may be starting to wane. Another Levada poll, conducted in April, found that 51 percent of people are tired of waiting for Putin to bring “positive change” — 10 percentage points higher than a year ago. Both polls surveyed 1,600 people across Russia and had margins of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Navalny hopes to capitalize on that discontent.

“Putin has nothing to say,” Navalny said. “All he can promise is what he used to promise before, and you can check that these promises did not come true and cannot come true.”

Navalny gets out his message on social media, using Twitter and Telegram and broadcasting a weekly program on YouTube. But television — the main source of information for most Russians — remains off limits because it’s controlled by the government.

Other opposition candidates are expected to run, notably socialite Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s mentor — but there is wide speculation that her candidacy is a Kremlin plot to split Navalny’s support. The only other candidates who are critical of Putin have too little support for the Kremlin to view them as threats.

Putin himself has announced his re-election bid but so far refrained from any campaigning events. Even so, his face is everywhere — at his annual news conference last week, carried live for nearly four hours on Russian television, he touted his accomplishments and even taunted Navalny — but stuck to his practice of not saying his name.

Navalny was not a candidate during Russia’s last presidential election in 2012, but he spearheaded massive anti-government protests that rattled Putin. Amid dwindling popularity, Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and threw support behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, striking a chord with millions of Russians who felt like losers in the outcome of the Cold War. Now, people are tiring of the Ukrainian conflict and becoming more focused on their own economic woes.