iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — Alexey Navalny thought he’d be in jail by now.
Russia’s presidential election is Sunday and the opposition leader, along with many other observers, expected he’d spend it behind bars.
But the Kremlin’s most troublesome opponent, known for his investigations exposing officials’ alleged corrupt wealth and who is backed by a grassroots movement he has brought onto the streets against President Vladimir Putin in unusually large numbers in the past year, will likely be free — and apparently out of the way when Russian voters go to the polls.
In February, he was charged—- as often happens —- for holding an unauthorized protest. Surprisingly, though, he was not immediately given the standard 30-day sentence, leaving him free but uncertain about when he may be jailed again.
Not that being locked up would be new for Navalny, who says he has spent 60 days incarcerated in the past year. A volunteer at his headquarters checks the websites of Moscow’s courts every day to make sure authorities have not scheduled a surprise hearing.
“It’s useless to analyze it,” Navalny said in an interview with ABC News at the Moscow office of his organization, the Anti-Corruption Fund. “Everyone thought I was going to be arrested last week, but I was not. No one understands why. Maybe I will be arrested tomorrow. Maybe the police will be waiting for me after this interview.”
As of Saturday afternoon, Navalny had not been arrested again.
Navalny may be a free man, but he has been removed from the presidential race. For a year he ran what he called a presidential campaign, touring Russia’s regions and building up a movement of tens of thousands of volunteers around calls for free elections and condemning corruption.
But in January he was barred from the ballot over a fraud conviction from 2013, a charge he says is trumped up. The European Court of Human Rights ruled, too, that the judgment was arbitrary.
Navalny’s exclusion reflects a broader feature of the controls being applied to Sunday’s election. Russia’s election is a strange beast: If you were to watch only on television, it would seem to have the usual trappings of any campaign season — candidates, campaign ads, rallies and television debates.
In reality, though, the election activity all occurs around a strange void -— an absence of actual competition.
In most elections, journalists closely watch the polls, looking for last-minute swings, tightenings in the race. In Russia, there is little point. The day before the vote, the polls would look the same as they did during the first week — with Putin dominating with a looming 60-point lead.
After 18 years in power and accumulating control of Russia’s media, institutions and political scene, Putin has effectively cleared the field of serious opponents. There are seven other candidates, but none believe they are running to win.
Putin is also genuinely popular among Russians, undergirded by a media that unstintingly backs his line. Two December polls by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national pollster, found that 81 percent of adults approve of Putin, and 60 percent would would vote for him.
His nearest competitors were around 7 percent. There is virtually no doubt he will be elected on Sunday — and serve a new term that runs through 2024.
A much more concerning number for authorities, however, is how many of those supporters will bother to vote on Sunday. With the vote effectively a referendum on Putin’s popularity, officials have become focused on ensuring a maximum show of support.
“The Kremlin has identified its main opponent in the 2018 presidential elections —- a low turnout,” Andrey Pertsev, a political commentator wrote in an article for the Carnegie Center.
The figure being circulated by officials in Russian media is a 70 percent turnout. The problem is, the certainty of Putin’s win is suppressing the number of Russians, even his supporters, who feel they need to vote for him.
The Levada Center’s independent poll in December showed only 28 percent of people definitely intended to vote. By contrast, a poll conducted in March by the state pollster, VTsIOM, showed that number at a healthy 74 percent.
The Levada Center has been banned from polling closer to the election and dubbed a “foreign agent.” That means there are no non-government polls voters can rely on.
To make sure that 70 percent is realized, authorities have therefore mounted an unprecedented effort to make the voting itself more entertaining. Authorities have been told to make election day like a “holiday,” the independent RBC newspaper reported.
The result is, as in Soviet times when free food was offered around polling stations, there will be concerts and competitions for Sunday’s vote: voters can win iPhones by taking selfies at voting stations; and the airline Utair has dropped its ticket prices to $8 for the election weekend so people can fly home to vote.
Putin himself has shown little interest in campaigning, appearing mostly only in brief made-for-TV events. At a triumphal closing rally in Crimea, Putin spoke for just two minutes.
The president has staged one large public meeting in Moscow before a crowd of 100,000. But many of those in attendance had been ordered to attend by their employers, or were paid. The event was a good example of the paradox of this election -— many of those forced to attend still supported Putin, but saw little reason to rally for him.
The attempt to inject novelty into the election has also been applied to the candidates. Ksenia Sobchak, a celebrity journalist, former reality TV star, and daughter of Putin’s political mentor, is running on a Western-orientated protest platform.
The Communist Party put forward a new candidate for the first time since 1996, Pavel Grudinin, a billionaire owner of a former Soviet collective strawberry farm.
Most observers — often even their supporters — believe the Kremlin has allowed these candidates onto the ballot. Critics refer to them as “spoilers,” meant to give the illusion of competition while making all alternatives to Putin look hopeless.
That was the effect most spectators took from the pre-election debates hosted by state TV, which Putin avoided. Sobchak, the celebrity journalist, tossed a glass of water over Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist candidate, after he called her a “whore.”
“I am horrified to think what the viewers watching at home must think of the level of political culture here,” said the moderator, Vladimir Solovyov, one of Putin’s favored interviewers, known for his slavish portraits of the Russian leader.
Even while seeking to boost turnout, though, the Kremlin has kept a close hand on things. Grudinin, the Communist candidate, proved to be surprisingly popular, at one point reaching 15 percent.
Stories then appeared in pro-Kremlin media that he had foreign bank accounts, grounds for barring a candidate. Grudinin denied the reports but it appeared to dent him and the possibility of disqualification now also hangs over him.
In this context, Navalny, barred from the vote, has called for people to boycott the election.
“It’s not an election,” Navalny said.
The aim is to target the turnout and highlight what Navalny argues is a “myth” of Putin’s popularity. Navalny argues that, in reality, Putin’s support is brittle and largely passive, protected by creating the impression there is no alternative.
“It is the classic situation of an authoritarian country,” he said. “Where an authoritarian leader gets 85 percent of the vote by using propaganda and scaring people. People do not see other politicians. Putin chooses dummy candidates, about which people say: ‘Of course, we have a load of clowns and there is great Putin who has been sitting for 18 years, let him stay on.’”
There are suspicions that authorities may turn to cruder measures to boost turnout. In previous elections, including last year’s parliamentary, Putin and his party’s numbers were allegedly padded by vote rigging — carousel voting where supporters are bussed around to vote several times, or hundreds of votes are simply added to final tallies at polling stations.
Navalny’s organization and other liberal parties, including Sobchak’s, have been mobilizing volunteers as election monitors. His group claims they will have 40,000 monitors across Russia.
Large-scale fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections prompted mass demonstrations against Putin. The situation is very different this time: observers say any fraud will focus on turnout figures, rather than suppressing that of other candidates.
Navalny told ABC News his group currently had no plan to hold streets protests.
Other opposition figures have criticized Navalny’s boycott, saying in the final accounting it will be impossible to know who stayed away from conviction and not apathy. Supporters of Sobchak, who is polling around 2 percent according to VTsIOM, argue that a strong showing for opposition candidates in the election could help push the Kremlin into selecting more liberal voices down the line, including perhaps her.
The election is “like a very big focus group” for the Kremlin, Leonid Preobrazhensky, 25, a media producer, at a Sobchak rally this week. “The only people who will have real data about this election is the Kremlin. Maybe they will look at the data and realize they have to change something.”
Navalny rejects the idea Sobchak is influencing the Kremlin, calling her “Putin’s marionette” in this election. He said he does not believe government polls showing voters are unaware of the boycott.
“If no one knew about the boycott, they wouldn’t fight that much with us,” Navalny said.
Police have raided Navalny’s organization’s offices in some cities ahead of the rally; some of Navalny’s monitors have been detained in the days before the election.
The mobilization of election monitors is unusual, reflecting Navalny’s appeal in a certain section of young, well-educated Russians.
But in reality, Russia’s youth are actually Putin’s strongest supporters. A Levada Center poll in December found 86 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds approved of Putin, higher than among the general population.
“Contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society,” Ivan Kravtsev and Gleb Pavlovsky, two political scientists, wrote for the European Council of Foreign Relations last month.
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