The Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk has been rocked by mass protests for months, after the region’s popular governor was arrested in connection with killings that happened well over a decade ago. And the example of neighboring Belarus, where hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is increasingly hard to ignore.
It has been more than a decade since the political landscape in Russia seemed so promising for the country’s liberal opposition as the country heads into local elections on September 13 that are seen as a harbinger of the national elections for the State Duma set for 2021.
But the opposition goes into the fight without its charismatic leader, the lawyer, anti-corruption crusader, and politician Aleksei Navalny, who was poisoned on August 20 and is currently in an induced coma at a hospital in Berlin, where doctors say he is expected to survive but could be incapacitated for months. German doctors say he was poisoned by a substance from the Novichok group of nerve agents, the same type of toxin that was used to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter in England in 2018.
“[The authorities] want to sideline Navalny so that his ‘smart-voting’ project would collapse,” political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov told Current Time, referring to a Navalny initiative designed to defeat United Russia by creating a list of candidates deemed most likely to defeat rivals from the ruling party and urging opposition-minded voters to vote for them. “Without Aleksei, it will be much harder to carry out this campaign.”
Anlayst Abbas Gallyamov agreed.
“Navalny was genuinely dangerous to the Kremlin in the context of the  Duma elections,” he said. “Thanks to his smart-voting project, the Kremlin’s plans to take control over the next Duma could have been foiled.”
Russia’s liberal opposition is still stinging from a similar situation, in which former Deputy Prime Minister and popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead outside the Kremlin in February 2015.
“I see a parallel with the murder of Boris Nemtsov,” said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister who is a leading activist in Navalny’s movement. “He was murdered a little over a year before the [September 2016] Duma elections. The purpose was obvious — he couldn’t be given a chance to form a powerful coalition. If Nemtsov had lived, we would be in the Duma now.”
“Now it is clear that Navalny is the leader who is in a position to unite people,” Milov added.
Krashennikov also points to Nemtsov’s assassination.
“The authorities hate people who can organize things and they attack them,” he said. “Recall the murder of Boris Nemtsov. He was murdered at the very beginning of the election campaign for the State Duma so that he would not be able to organize a strong list for the PARNAS opposition party, which by the way most likely would have included Navalny. Nemtsov was killed and the project fell apart.”
But there are reasons to think that this time things could be different. Navalny’s smart-voting project is already well developed and has shown encouraging signs of success. In 2019, the initiative was able to win 20 of 45 seats on the Moscow City Duma.
“Although we weren’t able to break United Russia’s majority in the Moscow City Duma, the deputies that we did get in there are making our work in future elections in Moscow much easier,” Milov said, arguing that such success leads to increased opposition activism. “First there is ‘smart voting’; then we get access to power at the regional level; and then people will come out into the streets to defend that power.”
The 2018 gubernatorial election in Khabarovsk Krai is another example. Navalny hailed the election of Sergei Furgal, who was on the smart-voting list and who soundly defeated the longtime United Russia incumbent. When authorities from Moscow arrested Furgal in July and whisked him off to the capital for trial on murder-related charges, the Khabarovsk region rose up in a wave of protests that continues to this day.
A key test for Navalny’s organization is whether it will be able to amicably create its list of smart-voting candidates, which the group normally announces just days before the elections in order to prevent the authorities from disqualifying the listed candidates. It remains to be seen if the list can be developed and promoted without divisive infighting.
Although Navalny has been enormously popular on social media and as a public speaker at protests and regional rallies, he has been blocked by Kremlin-controlled television and other media from developing a national image. His name recognition in many regions is low and when people do know of him, they often associate him with Kremlin smears, such as that he is a tool of the West. His real strength as a leader has been his ability to develop a genuinely grassroots organization that has proven it is capable of working without him during his many trials and spells in jail.
“A clear plus regarding Aleksei Navalny is that he is really a good manager,” said supporter and political analyst Aleksandr Kynev.
“He has been able to create one of our country’s very few networked organizations that can work even when he is not around. He has been arrested many times and there have been situations when virtually the entire leadership of the organization has been knocked out of commission, as happened last year and a few times earlier. But nonetheless, the organization worked.”
“In this regard, he is a unique talent in Russian politics as a political manager,” Kynev added. “I don’t think that even this extremely difficult situation will lead to the destruction of this unique network.”
Kremlin-connected political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky also credits Navalny with building a powerful national network.
“This is a person who was chosen by history,” Pavlovsky told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “He has done his part, but history selected him. History made him unique in his own way. The fact that he has been able, as this unique person, to build up a team, a strong team, and not only in Moscow, but all over Russia — that is a rare quality that few people have. That is why I think he is doing a great thing.”
“We are in a whole new situation,” he added. “What has changed compared to what Aleksei himself said? The fact that he himself cannot say it now — that has changed.”
Milov said pro-Kremlin sources have already begun spreading false rumors that the opposition has been “paralyzed” by Navalny’s absence.
“Nothing has been paralyzed,” he said. “We will see what nonsense it is to accuse Navalny of building a leader-based structure. Look how many bright, hard-working, independent people are on Navalny’s team. It is a genuine, broad structure and not some leader-based structure. And we know what to do. We have prepared ourselves for situations, such as we have seen in the past, when Navalny is removed from the scene. He always says: ‘There is a plan and all we need is for everyone to do their work.'”
Navalny himself emphasized this in a post to Instagram made just hours before he boarded the flight from Siberia to Moscow on which he very nearly died.
Posting a selfie with a group of young volunteers in Tomsk, he wrote: “In order to defeat the United Russia candidates, we need more volunteers. The party of power has a lot of money, but we have to rely only on the help of good, honest people. The thieves aren’t going to drive themselves from power!”
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson. RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time contributed to this report.