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Reportage. The populist leader is alienating supporters and refusing to build ties with natural allies. But without any legitimate opposition in the March 18 elections, Vladimir Putin faces the prospect of a victory with low voter turnout.

Navalny flops, creating a problem for Putin

Sunday was a very sad day for Alexey Navalny, who launched his campaign to run for the Kremlin one year ago. After his candidacy for the Russian presidential elections on March 18 was rejected at every level by the federal authorities, his mobilization for a voter boycott also turned out to be a flop, or close to one.

His press office was quick to provide numbers: events held in 118 cities, 260 detained, four arrests. “Despite the cold weather, with temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius in some places, thousands of people took to the streets,” said those on Navalny’s staff—but they didn’t manage to fully hide their disappointment.

In many of the cities, the “demonstrations” were nothing more than small gatherings, and in places like Vladivostok, where on previous occasions the protesters numbered in the thousands, only a few hundred people rallied on Sunday. In Moscow, where Navalny was taken to the police headquarters before he could reach his gathered supporters in Pushkin Square, there were only a thousand people present. At some point a group of neo-fascists also showed up, hooded and waving black flags with the Celtic cross that proclaimed “Only Russia and nothing more,” which foreign journalists took great pains to avoid taking photos of. It seemed rather disturbing that none of those present had any objections to the neo-fascists, as the demonstration was, ostensibly, for democracy.

The mobilizing machine of the populist leader seems to be failing. Clearly, the new tactics employed by the police are working. Officially, the demonstrations are not authorized—however, they are tacitly allowed to take place, and only a few people are selectively detained, with the interventions by the police no longer having the characteristics of raids. All of this has also had the effect of alienating many young people, who used to participate in these “happenings” excited by the idea of ​​an afternoon “porno-riot,” as a pro-government lawmaker has derisively called them.

But Navalny’s troubles go deeper than that. He has obvious problems regarding communication and positioning. “His blunt refusal to put forward social demands, or to join causes with the workers protesting against the outlawing of trade unions, and his decision to focus only on corruption, have caused his support to start wearing thin,” says an activist of the Left Front, who came to the demonstration to get a feel for the political climate.

Moreover, Navalny’s strategy to delegitimize not only Putin but all the candidates in the election, and the fact that his campaign is centered on himself to an extraordinary degree, are starting to bother even those members of the Russian public who have no love for the “Tsar of the Kremlin.”

It’s no coincidence that Monday, the Novaya Gazeta, which had always been friendly to Navalny in the past, preferred to run headlines about Ksenia Sobchak’s tour of Chechnya.

A self-described passionate liberal and the daughter of the well-known former mayor of St. Petersburg, she is running in the elections as “the candidate for those who want to vote against everyone.” On Sunday, she was in Grozny, calling for the release of Oyub Titiev, a human rights activist for the Memorial Human Rights Center who was arrested a few weeks ago on the—highly improbable—charge of possession of drugs.

What is starting to become a problem for Putin is not Navalny, who is facing a clear decline in support, but rather, paradoxically, the lack of a real challenge from the other candidates, who give the impression of being friendly sparring partners rather that combative opponents. For example, just last week, the communist candidate and agribusiness industry boss Pavel Grudinin, who had made the fight against capital flight to tax havens one of the main themes of his campaign, was forced to admit that he himself had no less than five bank accounts abroad.

What the Kremlin fears is that the low appeal of the other candidates will have a negative effect on voter turnout. The daily newspaper Vedomosti argued that “Putin doesn’t need a mere election, but rather a coronation.”

After the election, the now unavoidable problem of tax reform will need to be dealt with. The flat tax of 13 percent, introduced in 2001—and which has so many fans in Italy as well—has long since ceased to be a positive driving force for the economy, and some in the Kremlin are thinking about increasing the tax rates and introducing progressive elements. Against this, the representatives of small and medium businesses are already on a war footing, which is one of the reasons Putin needs a referendum-like victory. Without something like a 70 percent turnout, his political coalition might fall apart—according to the rumors going around the headquarters of the United Russia Party.

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