When Alexei Navalny sat down for his first campaign debate last month, he tried hard to appear presidential. His spiky cowlick fringe brushed flat and dressed in a dark suit and red tie instead of the trademark shirtsleeves, the opposition politician had come to woo people beyond the young Russians who have followed his call to protest and who have boosted his bid to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency.
Yet Mr Navalny’s choice of debating partners was jarring for many potential supporters: Igor Girkin, the fringe nationalist and former military officer notorious under his nom de guerre Strelkov, or “shooter”. Mr Girkin has been accused of atrocities when he participated in stoking a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine and is suspected of involvement in the shooting down of the Malaysian passenger aircraft MH17.
Less than two minutes into his first statement, Mr Navalny told Mr Girkin that if he became president after elections due next March, he would “allow everyone to run in elections, including you, including the nationalists”.
Mr Navalny’s readiness to court the far right and even engage with a man some in the Russian opposition call a war criminal has started to raise questions about what the anti-corruption blogger actually stands for.
“I support him as a demolisher of the Putin regime, of the current rule. But I can’t support him as a presidential candidate,” says Igor Yakovenko, a former sociologist, journalist and Duma deputy who worked with Mr Navalny during mass protests against Mr Putin in Moscow in 2011 and 2012.
This is the enigma of Mr Navalny. In the face of intense harassment, he has managed to build a surprisingly large popular movement focused on corruption in Mr Putin’s Russia, including 130,000 dedicated campaign volunteers, tens of thousands of activists who showed up for protests twice in the past four months and more than 1.7m subscribers to his online video channels.
He offers a simple promise — to distribute fairly to everyone the riches now monopolised by a corrupt oligarchy, all delivered in a language to the liking of a young generation turned off by the staid style of a government dominated by securocrats.
But as Mr Navalny emerges as a potentially genuine challenger in the elections — even if his chances remain slim — he is coming under a scrutiny he is not always prepared for. And while some in the west are asking if his strong support is the sign of a different kind of politics emerging in Russia, many of the liberals who might be regarded as his natural allies fear that his evolving persona could make him just another Putin. Economists, politicians and commentators who are critical of the Kremlin have criticised his lack of economic expertise. Some even say a leader who enjoys cult status among his followers is the last thing the country needs.
“I don’t see a single problem of our country that he could solve,” says Mr Yakovenko. “I think he would be no better than Putin.”
Lev Shlosberg, a regional member of parliament from Yabloko, the country’s oldest liberal party, argues that Russia has paid dearly for choosing its past two leaders on a whim.
“What did they vote for? Yes, for a personality. Yes, for a symbol of change,” Mr Shlosberg says of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “And when he got going on economic reform, it turned out that he didn’t know what he was doing,” he adds, pointing to Mr Yeltsin’s record of galloping inflation, a sovereign default and robber-baron privatisation which created the oligarchy.
Mr Putin, who has overseen the transfer of wealth to a different group of oligarchs and driven the country into a confrontation with the west that ended in choking sanctions, also took power without a proper programme. “We can discuss the policies that have been implemented, but he didn’t explain his policies for tomorrow in any of his election campaigns,” Mr Shlosberg says.
With the help of a video accusing prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption, which has been viewed more than 24m times since its publication in March, Mr Navalny is seen as the only opposition politician who stands any chance of challenging Mr Putin.
Mr Navalny’s platform is contained in a pamphlet with half a dozen catchphrases such as “hospitals and roads instead of palaces for officials” or “a dignified life for all, and not riches for the 0.1 per cent” — each with a half-page explanation.
In broad brushstrokes, Mr Navalny says rooting out corruption will free up immense funds that can be used to provide decent education, healthcare and infrastructure. He promises to lay the groundwork by making the courts independent, restoring a free media and allowing competitive and fair elections. His most concrete proposals are also the most controversial: a one-off tax on oligarchs, a Rbs25,000 ($415) minimum monthly wage and subsidised loans to allow more people to buy their own homes.
“There are slogans, there are mottos, there are statements — that is not a programme,” says Mr Shlosberg.
25,000 Minimum monthly wage in roubles (about $415) proposed by Alexei Navalny
>24m Views of video critical of PM Dmitry Medvedev. Navalny’s channels have 1.7m subscribers
570,671 Russians signed up to support Navalny election bid. He needs 300,000 if he is allowed to stand
The same happens when it comes to an oligarch tax. Mr Navalny says the levy could be modelled on the windfall tax the Blair government introduced on privatised UK utilities in the late 1990s. However, Mr Navalny is targeting the owners not the companies — in particular, the participants in the loans-for-shares programme, a 1996 rigged auction scheme that helped a small group of businessmen gain control of vast state energy assets.
All of his economic advisers oppose the idea, saying it could further undermine investors’ confidence in the state, would be impossible to organise fairly and would not raise significant funds.
For Mr Navalny, what counts is the political objective. “The unfair privatisations in the 1990s continue to weigh on our economy and our society,” he says. This legacy has undermined the state’s respect for private property and fed public resentment over inequality. “We need closure.”
But he struggles with the numbers. “The tax rate has to be significant so people feel it is a fair solution,” he says. Pressed for details, he says it could be “somewhere between 40 and 80 per cent”, and the levy would raise “at least several tens of millions of dollars” for the budget, adding that “the experts have to calculate that”.
The politician and his team are well aware of the shortcomings of his platform so far. “It was quite a spontaneous decision for him to run last December, so he wasn’t really prepared,” says Maxim Mironov, a Russian professor at Madrid’s IE Business School, who has been co-operating with Mr Navalny on corruption-related research since 2009.
Vladimir Ashurkov, an associate who has worked with Mr Navalny at his Anti-Corruption Foundation for years, says the platform includes ideas that evolved since Mr Navalny first tried registering his People’s Alliance party in 2012 and ran for Moscow mayor in 2013.
Since then, he has tried to build a credible team. According to Mr Ashurkov, Sergei Guriev has been “a good adviser”, although he has taken a low profile since becoming chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2016. Mr Mironov and Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy central bank governor, are the team’s two other key economists.
Vladimir Milov, a former official in Russia’s natural monopoly regulator and former deputy energy minister, has sided with Mr Navalny. Since June, Mr Milov has been hosting a weekly programme called Where’s The Money? on Mr Navalny’s YouTube channel.
“One of the key tasks for the next phase is appealing to the broader population,” says Mr Ashurkov. The campaign plans to publish a full programme with much more detailed policy proposals at the end of the month. Despite populist gestures like the debate with Mr Girkin, all of Mr Navalny’s advisers are pro-market liberals and confident that he will follow their policies.
“If you ask him, business is good, competition is good, mainstream western advice is good,” says one. “But now he believes more in socially inclusive policies and fairness. So if you want to define him, in the US he would be a Democrat, in Europe he would be centre-right.”
On international affairs, Mr Navalny offers much less of a break from the Kremlin. Although he blasts Mr Putin for harming the Russian economy with “foreign policy adventurism” and says Moscow must stop waging war on Ukraine, the opposition candidate’s own foreign policy views hold little promise of rapprochement with the west.
“The naivety of the collective west regarding Navalny is astonishing,” says Mr Yakovenko. “It is almost like Putin all over again, when [US President George W] Bush glanced into his soul.”
In 2008, Mr Navalny backed Russia’s war with Georgia and even blamed the government for being too soft. He also supported Transnistrian separatists in Moldova and backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their split from Georgia — all positions at odds with the west.
To settle the Crimea conundrum, Mr Navalny proposes that Moscow hold a second referendum, preferably with international support, aimed at creating legitimacy for the region joining Russia.
But what worries many critics more than policy proposals is the fear that Russia’s people might just seek to swap one strong leader for the next.
“Politicians are not idols. You don’t have to love them,” Mr Shlosberg says. “You should take a sceptical, tough, critical approach to them.”
Andrei Illarionov, an exiled former adviser to Mr Putin who has become one of the president’s fiercest critics, even suggested that if Mr Navalny came to power, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t turn out like Mao Zedong in China or Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. “We need to quit ‘vozhdey’,” he said in a media interview, using a Russian term for leader that carries undertones of the Nazi German “Führer”.
Such fears are rooted less in Mr Navalny’s political positions but in the fact that Mr Putin’s system is geared to be run by one leader. “Navalny’s emergence as the only option for the opposition, just as Putin is often seen as the only option for Russia, is of the Kremlin’s making,” says Mr Yakovenko. Russia’s institutions have been hollowed out in Mr Putin’s more than 17 years in power.
Even with the success of Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign, his chances of winning or even being allowed to register in the election are remote. His team is blunt about its objectives. “It looks increasingly likely that Russia will see some kind of unexpected event — protest, or someone among Putin’s own circle changing their mind about what the country’s future should look like,” says one of Mr Navalny’s advisers.
“Then, everything will be wide open. There might be a transitional figure, but there will also be broad discussions. That’s what our programme is really written for, and that’s Navalny’s hour.”