Within the reservation bounded by Russia’s political constraints, he is the most successful player. While other opposition leaders are struggling to reach out to their prospective electorates, Navalny is expanding his game. Despite the fact that his party is not officially registered, and he is unlikely to be allowed to run for office in the presidential elections set for the spring of 2018, Navalny is leading a self-proclaimed presidential campaign. This difficult and risky move has so far paid off, mostly because no one else is as politically proactive as Navalny.
His group, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, is producing well-documented blog posts, video documentaries, a regular YouTube “television” show, and an incessant social-media campaign against corruption. Building on these, he organizes rallies and encourages people to go out to attract attention to his causes.
The latest case in point was a documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who, according to the video, amassed luxury properties through “donations” to a chain of bogus charity funds. The film, which is approaching 23 million views on YouTube as of this writing, helped inspire tens of thousands of people in at least 80 Russian cities to join protests in late March. The protest of June 12 attracted a somewhat smaller crowd (the numbers are hard to assess because the estimates are all local and vary wildly depending on who is estimating; up to 60,000 nationwide is a figure that has been circulating). But it still proved a substantial showing considering the risks of joining an anti-government protest, which can include beatings and detention.
Navalny is styling himself as a refuge for all those who do not feel themselves politically represented. The difficulty (that many consider a blessing) for any opposition force, Navalny included, is the fact that Russians are conscious of living in a land of too many revolutions and often shy away from illegal or violent protest. This means the political action that does occur has to retain as much legality as possible without losing relevance. Navalny had, with much delay, secured authorization to hold an event in one place. But right before it was set to occur, Navalny said the Moscow municipal government was stonewalling his attempts to procure a sound system for the rally, and transferred the event to a place that was not authorized. A lot of criticism of Navalny is centered on this fact: He is playing with fire while subjecting his followers, many of them young, to risks of arrest and jail terms.
The other line of criticism is the opposite: Many think of Navalny as a secret surrogate of some powerful player within the Kremlin system. This school of thought is built on a speculation that no one else in Russia is able to play the kinds of games Navalny is playing and stay out of jail (most of the time) or even alive and fit.