The Russian presidential campaign unofficially launched with Alexei Navalny’s announcement that he’s running for the presidency in 2018. But a lot has to happen between now and then for that to become a reality.

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny attends a broadcast at the Echo Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. Photo: AP

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny confirmed his intention to run for the Russian presidency in 2018. What made this possible, to a large extent, was a recent European Court of Human Rights ruling that the controversial Kirovles case (in which Navalny was convicted of embezzlement) be sent for retrial in Kirov. If the court clears Navalny of any wrongdoing, he would be able to run for political office.

Also read: "Russia's opposition leader Navalny declares presidential bid"

As soon as the court’s initial judgment (a five-year suspended sentence) is overturned, Navalny would be able to start gathering the 300,000 signatures formally required for his presidential bid. In launching his campaign, he did not unite with any other opposition parties, which are currently divided.

His first move as a presidential candidate was the release of a campaign video, in which he unveiled his initial political platform, which includes a fight against corruption and the existing system in general.

Source: YouTube / Alexei Navalny

Navalny’s announcement resonated in every political circle of the country and de facto started Russia’s presidential campaign of 2018. The Kremlin, it turns out, was not the first to launch a presidential campaign.

Recently, Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin argued that Russian law does not allow Navalny to run for the presidency. This sparked hot discussions about the legality of Navalny’s presidential bid. According to Russian legislation, any citizen convicted of a felony does not have the right to take part in any elections.

Today, Navalny is convicted of financial crimes under two legal articles. The first is the Yves Rocher case, which is currently under consideration in Strasbourg. The second one is the Kirovles case, which the European Court of Human Rights sees as politically motivated. It did admit that the rights of Navalny and his partner Petr Ofitserov were violated. In November 2016, Russia’s Supreme Court partly overturned the sentence in the Kirovles embezzlement case and sent it for retrial in Kirov. Navalny and Ofitserov even received compensation in the amount of approximately $83,200.

Together with the video clip, the Navalny team unveiled his new website and started organizing campaign contributions for his presidential bid. Three hours after the video was released, the campaign received more than 1 million rubles ($16,100), according to Navalny’s head of staff Leonid Volkov.

It is worth mentioning that the current political platform of Navalny is still very general, even when compared with the platform he used when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013. It talks about the struggle against corruption, a one-time flat fee on oligarchs and a high tax on profits. Apart from that, Navalny offers to fight centrism – meaning that more of the taxation revenue should be left to the regions, not to the federal center. The opposition candidate also calls for a halt to military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine.

Navalny repeatedly argued that all criminal cases against him were fabricated and aimed at keeping him from taking part in the presidential race. In fact, any decision of the court on the Kirovles case will be perceived by the media in the context of whether or not Navalny will be allowed to run for the presidency.

The massive protest movement in Russia in 2011-2012 became possible by the consolidation of the opposition forces. Since then, the opposition movement has been unable to come together, despite the fact that everyone agrees with the necessity to be united during the elections to avoid splitting the votes between several opposition candidates. This is why it is a big question now of who will support Navalny. Will he become the sole candidate of all the opposition forces?

In his interview with Meduza (an independent Russian-language publication that operates outside of Russia), Navalny stated that he did not discuss his run for the presidency with anybody.

“We shot our video clip secretly, we rented an office in Moscow City (the main business area in Moscow) because we did not want to discuss such things in our own office," Navalny said. "No doubt, our office is wiretapped. We were afraid that if my intentions became known, they would simply keep me stuck in Kirov, and wouldn’t let me come back to Moscow. In order to shoot the video, we rented a room in a hotel and worked all night on it. I am an independent politician. Everything that I do I discuss with the people I respect and whom I trust, experts, my team, my family.”

Soon after Navalny’s announcement, the opposition parties People's Freedom Party (PARNAS) and Yabloko held meetings to discuss whether they would back their own candidates for the presidential race or support Navalny. Although Yabloko did not announce its own candidate yet, most likely it is going to be the party’s founder, Grigory Yavlinsky, who has been taking part in the presidential elections since the 2000s, although always unsuccessfully.

PARNAS is split on that question. Some important figures have left the party, disagreeing with the policy of its leader, Mikhail Kasyanov. These figures included right-wing nationalists taking part in the 2016 parliamentary campaign.

Kasyanov told Russia Direct that he is not going to run, but his party will support a candidate who agrees to be president for a two-year transition period while a process of constitutional reform takes place. That reform implies limitation of the presidential powers. As part of that reform, the State Duma would form the government and elect judges. Theoretically, PARNAS might support Navalny if he agrees to these terms, suggests Kasyanov. However, so far, there have been no talks about that between them.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch and an opposition activist, expressed his support for Navalny. His organization, Open Russia, is ready to provide assistance to Navalny upon his request, but it is too early to talk about details now, explained the executive director of Open Russia, Timur Valeev.

In this context, Khodorkovsky’s ratings in Russia are very low and his support might actually hurt Navalny more than help him. Navalny’s campaign would be associated with the money of the billionaire oligarch who has already been jailed in Russia and is now hiding abroad. Needless to say, it would negatively affect his image among ordinary Russians.

Another promising figure who has not yet announced his decision to run for the presidency is the former member of the Russian parliament, Dmitry Gudkov. The problem is that he took part in the parliamentary elections representing the Yabloko party, but now all Yabloko members have pledged their support to their leader Yavlinsky – at least, if he runs for the presidency.

However, it is too premature to weigh in on the political chances of the candidates now. The court in Kirov can easily leave the sentence unchanged. Moreover, there might be another obstacle for the independent candidate – gathering the required 300,000 signatures. Technically, it is not a problem for Navalny. However, the formal process of gathering signatures has become an easy way to cause problems for “undesirable” candidates. Simple things - how the signature is written, whether it is legible, or even whether the person who signed it is registered in the migration services – can be used to disqualify a signature.

Even Russia’s Central Electoral Commission does not deny the problem with signatures might present a serious obstacle. Analysis of the electoral lists shows that none of the parties that were required to obtain a certain number of signatures failed to do so. However, more than 200 independent candidates tried to register and only 19 succeeded. Thus, it is a big problem that limits a citizen’s right to be elected.

Russia Direct sources in the Presidential Administration say that the question of Navalny’s participation in the 2018 elections has not been decided yet. However, First Deputy Head of the Administration Sergei Kiriyenko is familiar with Navalny’s presidential aspirations. So, there is no secret that Navalny’s fate will be decided at the highest level.

In general, there is some advantage for the Kremlin in Navalny’s run for the presidency. “His participation might make the entire campaign more interesting and increase voter turnout," said Deputy Director of the independent Levada Center Alexey Grazhdankin. "His participation might be used as a tool for the legitimization of the newly elected president.”

Political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky suggests that Navalny is becoming an international media figure, which means that his actions now could be a useful investment in his future political capital.

“Navalny undertook the main political action of this year – he basically announced a transition period that is not only about preparing for the presidential elections of 2018 but also about preparing for Putin’s departure from political power,” the expert explains.

However, in general, the majority of experts see Navalny’s odds as not very high. Success in Moscow does not mean success across the entire country, according to the director of the Center of Political Research of the Financial University Pavel Salin. The problem here is that the nation’s protest activity is mainly concentrated in the capital, based on many sociological surveys and results of the previous elections.

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“Navalny is not as popular today as he was in 2011. Criminal charges against him had a negative effect,” argues director of the Center of Political Technologies Boris Makarenko. In contrast, his colleague Alexey Makarkin suggests that Navalny has a chance if a clamor for change replaces the current apathy.  

Navalny understands that elections in today's Russia are not really an honest expression of the votes of the citizens, and he is unlikely to plan to win – that would be naivety.

“Our campaign is devoted to one goal – to be registered for the elections," Navalny said. "We will do everything to create a situation in which the Kremlin will understand that it is necessary to register [an opposition candidate]. Of course, victory matters and I am going to work hard to achieve it. But I am not naive. I know everything about these elections, I know how they will be held in Chechnya, Volga region, Mordovia. I am a realist. But if one does not take part in the elections to win – then what’s the point?”