Alexei Navalny isn’t used to being a bystander. For several years, the opposition leader has dominated the landscape of critical politics in Russia. His anti-corruption investigations drew in millions; his rallies attracted a new generation of demonstrators; his uninvited bid for the presidency caught everyone – including the Kremlin – unawares.
However, last Tuesday, something changed. Following quite a while of gossip, the superstar columnist of Mr Putin’s former supervisor, Ksenia Sobchak, declared she too would remain as a dissent applicant in next March’s races.
What was more, and conversely with Mr Navalny, the socialite appeared as though she had the unsaid endorsement from the Kremlin for her offer. Mr Navalny’s supporters have since blamed her for some transgressions – for part the resistance, for planning with the specialists, and for legitimizing counterfeit races. She denies each of the three.
Ms Sobchak has the privilege to run, surrendered Mr Navalny; “so do I.”
On her part, Ms Sobchak insists she has not agreed anything with the Kremlin. She says that – unlike Mr Navalny – she is well placed to return democracy to Russia without blood on the streets. For Mr Navalny, the idea of a soft transfer of power is quixotic – negotiations with the Kremlin always end in failure, he says, “and you end up losing the people”.
Over the last week, Ms Sobchak has offered several olive branches to Mr Navalny. She said she would withdraw her candidacy if he were registered as a candidate, however unlikely that scenario seems. And in a YouTube interview with the popular blogger Yuri Dud, she revealed that she had suggested a compromise: that Mr Navalny’s loyal wife, Yulia, run as his proxy and the unity democratic candidate.
The presidential hopeful does not think much of either suggestion. He was running an “honest campaign”, he says; and people’s votes were “not transferable”. For the same reason, he would not transfer resources to Ms Sobchak in the event that he was not registered: “If I’m not allowed to run, the elections would not be elections. Of course we’d have to boycott them.”
Critics would say the position was typical Navalny – inflexible, unaccommodating, brash. In the lead up to announcing her decision to run, Ksenia Sobchak herself accused him of attempts to “monopolise” the opposition, of creating a cult of leadership around him. But Mr Navalny is unapologetic. He says he’s earned the right to run. He says he’s earned the right to lead.
“If you want to challenge, please do,” he says. “Do your own investigations. Find yourself facing several criminal prosecutions. See half of your relatives go to prison. And then yes, maybe, you can have a go at leadership.