Vladimir Putin's Challenger Says He Would Win If Russia's Elections Were Fair

As the most serious challenger during Vladimir Putin’s 18 years in power, Alexei Navalny has endured arrests, show trials and facefuls of green antiseptic that damaged his vision.

In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, he said the biggest thing keeping him from becoming Russia’s next president is a political system that punishes him for rallying support and conspires to keep his face off the airwaves.

Navalny, in his first interview since the start of the presidential campaign, said he would win it “if I am allowed to run and if I’m allowed to use major media.” And he said the Kremlin knows it.

“It’s the main reason they don’t want me to run,” he said. “They understand perfectly how ephemeral the support for them is.”

That support certainly looks strong: The latest independent poll, conducted this month by the Levada Center, suggests 75% of Russians would vote for Putin. People in much of Russia back Putin as a matter of course, and Navalny supporters are routinely heckled, arrested and fined when they try to spread their message.

But there are also signs that enthusiasm for Putin may be starting to wane. Another Levada poll, conducted in April, found that 51% of people are tired of waiting for Putin to bring “positive change” — 10 percentage points higher than a year ago. Both polls surveyed 1,600 people across Russia and had margins of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Navalny hopes to capitalize on that discontent.

“Putin has nothing to say,” Navalny said. “All he can promise is what he used to promise before, and you can check that these promises did not come true and cannot come true.”

Navalny gets out his message on social media, (Twitter and Telegram) and broadcasting a weekly program on YouTube. But television — the main source of information for most Russians — remains off limits because it’s controlled by the government.

Other opposition candidates are expected to run, notably socialite Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s mentor — but there is wide speculation that her candidacy is a Kremlin plot to split Navalny’s support. The only other candidates who are critical of Putin have too little support for the Kremlin to view them as threats.

Putin himself has announced his re-election bid but so far refrained from any campaigning events. Even so, his face is everywhere — at his annual news conference last week, carried live for nearly four hours on Russian television, he touted his accomplishments and even taunted Navalny — but stuck to his practice of not saying his name.

Navalny published his full election platform last week, focusing on fighting corruption and funneling more money into education and health care. He calls for a windfall tax on oligarchs and huge cuts to Russia’s bloated bureaucracy.

Unlike Putin’s focus on foreign policy, Navalny’s platform is almost entirely domestic, which he credits for growing support in places like Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, where he drew a large crowd in October.

“Our government is in the grip of illusions. They deal with Syria and they’re not interested in what’s happening in Novosibirsk, and people there feel it,” Navalny told the AP. “That translates into the fact that I’m receiving more support.”

Vladimir Putin's Challenger Says He Would Win if Russia's Elections Were Fair

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