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Free for now, blog 'martyr' aims high

Helen Womack (via SMH) | Aug. 6, 2013
The anti-corruption blogger, on bail since receiving a five-year jail sentence, is making maximum use of whatever time he has left as a free man to pursue his campaign for election.

Russia's opposition leader and anti-graft blogger Alexei Navalny (C) gestures as he speaks in Moscow July 30, 2013.
Charismatic outsider: Alexei Navalny campaigning in Moscow.Photo: Reuters

If it's Tuesday, it must be the housing estates near Aeroport metro station; if it's Friday, Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny will be meeting voters in the Yasenovo district.

The anti-corruption blogger, on bail since receiving a five-year jail sentence, is making maximum use of whatever time he has left as a free man to pursue his campaign for election.

"He's holding three meetings a day with the public," said his campaign manager, Leonid Volkov. "Between now and the vote on September 8, he hopes to meet residents in every one of Moscow's 146 districts."

In addition, his supporters are plastering the metro with little arrow stickers that point on the map to Marino district and say: "Navalny lives here." The intention is to show that Mr Navalny, like everyone else, lives in a shoebox in a high-rise suburb, not out in verdant Rublyovka, home to the elite.

These are the tactics of a charismatic outsider, who up to now has been banned from the television airwaves and only able to reach his electorate via the internet. However, now that he is registered as an official candidate, his face will soon appear on state TV and he will be allowed to take part in the pre-election debates.

It's an extraordinary change of fortune for a man who, two weeks ago, was led away in handcuffs after being convicted by a court in the town of Kirov on trumped-up charges of stealing timber and sentenced to five years in jail.

Commentators are still trying to explain the volte-face by the authorities, who had seemed set on removing the troublesome blogger from the political scene.

The theory that Russian President Vladimir Putin was rattled by a pro-Navalny protest of about 10,000 people under the Kremlin walls doesn't hold water, as it emerged that prosecutors had advocated he receive bail before the demonstrators came out onto Manege Square.

Some thought the regime had sought to frighten Mr Navalny before softening its position. Others detected a split in the administration, with hardliners keen to sideline him but the Kremlin's preferred candidate for mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, arguing he should run to give the election some legitimacy.

Whatever the thinking of the authorities, the trial in Kirov gave Mr Navalny an enormous boost, making him known to millions who had hardly heard of him before and - for his supporters - turning him into a martyr.

Commentator Yulia Latynina said drily: "The judge in Kirov has sentenced Navalny to the Russian presidency." And indeed, the blogger has his sights on Russia's top job in 2018, although for now his stated ambition is to force Mr Sobyanin into a second round in the election for mayor.

 

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