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Vladimir Putin is still shaken by Alexei Navalny

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P.THE RESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN has every reason to be angry. He tried to poison the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He locked him up in one of the harshest penal colonies in Russia. He banned his anti-corruption foundation. He chased his comrades out of the country and banned his allies from running. And yet, after all of this, Mr Navalny and his movement are still at the center of the elections to the Russian Duma (his parliament) on September 19th.

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On the surface, the political field is exclusively that of Mr Putin. The only parties allowed to run, including the communists and Yabloko, a harmless liberal group, have been disinfected by the Kremlin. With the media silenced and repression and censorship the most important election campaign instruments, the victory of the Kremlin-backed “United Russia” is a given. But a drama is unfolding beneath the surface as the Kremlin desperately fights against Mr Navalny’s efforts to awaken and coordinate voters

The Kremlin has hoped that, provided the elections are over, most Russians will not be interested. If they stay home, United Russia should undoubtedly win as a solid block of state workers, retirees and members of the armed forces is persuaded to vote for it. If the turnout is low, the need for blatant rigging and the risk of mass protests would be avoided.

At the same time, the Kremlin is urging Moscow, where United Russia is particularly weak, to vote online to make it easier for the authorities to spy on them and control the process. It even appears to have hacked into the database of an online liberal media organization and sent its readers a message asking them to boycott the elections.

But Mr Navalny’s campaign to stir up and consolidate a protest vote from his prison cell is damaging Mr Putin. Pollsters give United Russia less than 30% of the vote. The Kremlin is particularly shocked by Mr. Nawalny’s call to people to follow his “smart voting” strategy. Half of the Duma seats are allocated according to party lists, so the opposition leader is calling on his supporters to vote for any other parliamentary party as “United Russia” in order to beat them back.

The other half of the seats are first-past-the-post, so the smart voting team here, using their own poll data and analysis, has endorsed the most likely candidate to beat United Russia regardless of their opinion. Its main goal is to remove “United Russia” from a large majority, thereby weakening its control over electoral commissions across Russia. That would give the opposition more leeway where it is relatively strong, such as Khabarovsk in the Far East. Smart voting has worked in various local elections, including in Moscow in 2019 when United Russia performed poorly.

Russia’s internet censor has properly blocked the smart voting website, telling Google and Yandex, Russia’s premier search engine, to block the combination of two words – smart voting – in their searches. Yandex obeyed but Google did not, resulting in a fine. The Kremlin accuses her of “meddling in Russia’s elections”.

In order to anticipate such blockages, the Navalny team has developed a smart voting app. Internet censorship has ordered tech giants, including Apple, to remove it from their stores. It has even ordered VPN and website security providers to prevent downloads, with seemingly little success.

Journalists are arrested for repeating mentions of smart voting on their social media accounts. Human rights lawyers are targeted. Popular bloggers are threatened with house arrest for violating Covid rules, which almost no one follows. Even offline, there is intimidation along the lines of the Soviet model. Hundreds of people across Russia have reported visits by plainclothes police officers who asked questions about Mr. Navalny and warned of dire consequences if they assist him.

Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, says smart voting has become a political party. “It is not the name or the registration that defines a party, but its ability to consolidate voters and influence the outcome of the elections,” he says. The Kremlin’s power rests on two pillars: its information monopoly and the threat of repression. But the proliferation of high-speed mobile internet has changed Russian politics. The Liberal Mission Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, estimates the percentage of people checking their news online has increased from 18% to 45% over the past five years. Therefore, 70% of Russians know Mr. Navalny. His YouTube channel has about as many viewers as the news from a major state television network. Whatever the outcome of the election, the war on the internet will only get worse.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading “The voters are getting smarter”

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