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The Role Opposition Parties Play In Russian Politics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Russia, one of the leading opponents of President Vladimir Putin has been barred from running in the presidential race a few months from now. Alexei Navalny registered as a candidate on Sunday, and the Election Commission rejected his application the next day. They cited his previous conviction for embezzlement. This was not a surprise. Reporter Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: First tell us a bit about Navalny. Does he represent a real threat to Putin's grip on power?

MAYNES: Yes and no. I mean, Putin has sky-high approval ratings here in Russia, and the majority certainly expect him to win the election in March of 2018. But the concern about Navalny has always been his potential to do a lot of damage along the way. In the past year, we've seen him open campaign offices and hold rallies in cities across Russia. And this has really proven that his message expands beyond what it used to be, which was essentially to the Moscow hipster crowd, to this wider segment of the public and, most importantly, to younger Russians.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this month, Putin held his annual press conference where he said he wanted an opponent in this presidential race. The quote was, "I will strive for a balanced political system, and that is impossible without competition in the political field." Has he shown any indication that he actually will tolerate opposition?

MAYNES: Well, again, it's a yes and no. I mean, Putin is interested in not only winning, but he wants to win convincingly. You know, he wants to feel as though he has a mandate going into his fourth term in office or I guess fifth if you want to count his time as prime minister. And to do that, you need competition. You need to give people a reason to come out and vote. And so what we've seen are a handful of candidates come forward who are opponents to the president, who criticize him. But they're there really to raise voter turnout. They fundamentally pose no threat.

So someone like, for example, Ksenia Sobchak - she's the daughter of Putin's mentor, the St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, and a socialite-turned-journalist - you know, she's running not to win but to consolidate votes - who disagree with President Putin's policies. But fundamentally this is all about turnout, which is why we've seen Navalny call on supporters and other candidates to boycott because the idea here is to make the race look legitimate in the eyes of many Russians who wanted to see him compete against Vladimir Putin and really saw him as the only competition.

SHAPIRO: Putin's government has been so harsh on political opponents. Some have landed behind bars. Others have died under mysterious circumstances. What does it take to be an opposition leader in today's Russia?

MAYNES: Well, you ask Navalny, it takes guts. I mean, certainly we've seen a lot of Navalny's colleagues from the opposition - some have been murdered, as you mentioned - Boris Nemtsov, for example. Some have gone into exile. I think of someone like the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the chess star Garry Kasparov.

But you know, Navalny's been the only one to really stay and compete. And of course his brother is behind bars as we speak. He's been convicted on many occasions. And certainly these various criminal cases are thrown against him, and that's the reason why he was excluded from this race. They say that he was convicted on embezzlement charges that made him ineligible for the elections.

SHAPIRO: There have been points in Russian history where a crackdown on political opposition has led to street protests and a grassroots uprising. Does anything similar seem brewing now?

MAYNES: Well, I think that's the real question. By not allowing Navalny into this race, you're saying to all these people who've supported him over the years and particularly over this past year as he's really connected into the regions that their voices don't matter, that they can't participate in the electoral process. The fact that their candidate, after all his work, is not allowed certainly gives them no opportunity - not many opportunities other than the street at this point.

SHAPIRO: Charles Maynes is a reporter in Moscow. Thanks for joining us.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.