The Call

Limits of e-politics: Why Alexey Navalny won’t win an election anytime soon

Limits of e-politics: Why Alexey Navalny won’t win an election anytime soon

By Jenia Ustinova

Alexey Navalny is living the blogger‘s dream. A lawyer by training, the 34-year-old Russian media darling is both famous and audacious. Last year he sunk the competition in a virtual election for Moscow city mayor, and the Russian and international press have since published numerous profiles about his online anti-corruption crusade. His live journal blog boasted one million unique visitors when he unveiled his report on Transneft, a government pipeline monopoly that he alleges embezzled $4 billion from government coffers. Navalny is effective, too: Transneft is currently under investigation, ordered by none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

All the success has launched frenzied speculation about Navalny’s political potential, with a few observers suggesting that he could rise to the presidency. Navalny is associated with what’s known as the "internet party" – a catch-all term for educated elites who use the internet regularly and are critical of the regime. The regime, in turn, is aligned with the "television party" — a reference to the bland news coverage and extensive reportage about Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev that Russia’s three state-run channels churn out. In response to the hubbub, Navalny has said that he won’t participate in corrupt elections. But, as others have pointed out, he hasn’t said he doesn’t want to be president, only that he won’t participate in elections as they are currently organized.

So should the regime be concerned? After all, the stars seem to be aligned in Navalny’s favor. Annual opinion polls by the well-respected Levada Center show that corruption is one of the electorate’s top concerns. And the ruling tandem’s ratings have been on the decline. Meanwhile, buzz is building that the Russian internet-often billed as the country’s "last free speech platform" — just might beget a viable opposition to the soft-authoritarian system currently in place.

But the stats tell a different story. Russia is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, firmly in the grip of the television party. Levada finds that while 28-30 percent of Russians use the internet regularly, an overwhelming 8 in 10 watch television on a daily basis. And when it comes to current events, more than 90 percent of Russians reach for their remotes. Only 11 percent start up their computers to read the news. More to the point, a separate Levada poll found that 95 percent of Russia’s self-identified internet users couldn’t name a blogger whose political opinion they admired. Navalny was cited by less than one percent of the respondents. Two percent went with Medvedev and another 2 percent named Putin — who doesn’t blog.

Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade is flourishing on the internet, and may even bring real accountability and transparency to Russian businesses. But that hardly guarantees real-deal political success. No doubt Putin was well aware of that fact when he declared in a televised speech last week that there would be no restrictions on Russia’s internet.

 Jenia Ustinova is a member of Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.