Winning by Losing

A radio news report that Alexei Navalny had come in second in Moscow’s mayoral race with 27 percent of the vote jolted me awake this morning. I subsequently spent the whole day wondering whether the time had come to parachute back into Moscow and revive my protest blog.

Russia’s new rock-star opposition leader was disputing official results that Kremlin-picked incumbent Sergei Sobyanin had mustered a 51 percent win, just barely enough to avoid a run-off election. I decided to wait and see what Navalny would tell supporters at a rally scheduled for this evening. Anything was possible.

Overnight, the gadfly blogger who was largely responsible for starting the anti-government protests in 2011 had become Russia’s first opposition politician of national significance in more than a decade.

Vladimir Putin is at a loss about what to do. First he had Navalny convicted in a byzantine embezzlement case, then changed tack and let him take part in snap mayoral elections, assuming a poor showing would bury the protest leader once and for all.

Undoubtedly Putin had a ruder awakening this morning than I did. Syria is a sideshow.

At 7 p.m. Moscow time, I turned to, the website of progressive TV channel Dozhd. The youthful news program was streaming live from Bolotnaya Square, where the first big anti-Putin protest took place in December 2011. Thousands of people were crowding onto the narrow island across the Moskva River from the Kremlin.

One campaign worker after the other came on stage to testify to the energy and enthusiasm of the Navalny team. In the tightly-scripted elections of Putin’s Russia, the idea of a fairly fought election campaign seems outlandish. But Putin himself once ran the reelection campaign of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak – who lost.

Finally Navalny, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, joined his campaign team on the stage. His pretty blonde wife Yuliya stood off to the side.

In recent years, the words “Russian opposition leader” connoted “loser.” No longer.

After thanking his supporters, Navalny recalled that the last time he had spoken at Bolotnaya Square, it was out of desperation.

“Now I’m trying to understand: is this a demonstration of victory or defeat?”

The crowd gave him a resounding answer. In recent years, the words “Russian opposition leader” connoted “loser.” No longer.

“We’ve all been wanting to go to a victory rally for so long,” Navalny said.

“A big opposition has been born in Russia – a real, big, political movement that represents the majority.”

Of course that’s hyperbole, since with voter turnout at about 33 percent, Navalny can really only claim to have won the support of every tenth Muscovite. But that’s the 10 percent of the population that counts. The apathetic and resigned majority doesn’t effect change in Russia, just as it doesn’t in any other country.

While he had often called on protesters to defy the authorities by lingering at rallies in the past – and once even suggested storming the Kremlin – Navalny now was telling his supporters to go home and save their strength for the long struggle ahead.

“Perhaps when the time comes, I’ll call on you to participate in illegal protests, overturn cars, light smoke bombs or something else,” he said obliquely.

“I ask you to believe me, because I know what to do next.

“Perhaps when the time comes, I’ll call on you to  overturn cars and light smoke bombs.”

“We know how to turn our political machine that we created during these elections into a steamroller that will crush United Russia and all the swindlers and thieves that it swept into office.

“In Moscow and Yekaterinburg, in St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, in Volgograd and Samara. Everywhere people like us will soon be standing. I don’t know whose names will be on their signs. But I know for sure that those people will be of the same blood as we are – and part of our successful political campaign that will smash this thieving government across the whole country.”

It was a brilliant political speech. Navalny accepted defeat and declared victory at the same time.

This protest blog remains a work in progress.

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