On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s inauguration, thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest against his fourth term.
The demonstrations, which came just days after some 10,000 people attended a major rally in Moscow against the banning of popular messaging app Telegram, were held under the banner “He’s Not Our Tsar!” in 90 cities across the country.
They were organised by opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was among 1,600 detained by the police at the anti-Putin rally.
Commanding a vast network of supporters across the country and running a popular anti-corruption campaign, Navalny is poised to capture and mobilise the growing discontent against the ruling regime.
For better or worse, Navalny has emerged as Putin’s sole political opponent able to challenge him during the next six years of his rule.
As the Russian president is about to embark on his fourth term, which would see him surpassing Leonid Brezhnev as the country’s longest-serving leader in modern history, Navalny is flexing his political muscle to demonstrate what is yet to come.
A lawyer by profession, Navalny entered politics through the liberal opposition party Yabloko, of which he became a member in 2000. He climbed to the ranks of the party eventually becoming a deputy head of its Moscow branch only to be forced to resign in 2007 over his dealings with ultranationalists.
Navalny has not only attended the far-right “Russian march” and engaged with its organisers, but has also made a number of racist statements, including calling Georgians “rodents” during Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and comparingmigrants to “insects”. He also was the cofounder of a short-lived nationalist movement aimed at fighting for democracy and the rights of ethnic Russians.
During the 2011 and 2012 mass protests prompted by accusations of a rigged parliamentary election, Navalny became one of the leaders of the protest movement.
In October 2012, he was elected to the coordination committee of the Russian opposition, which was formed to negotiate with the Kremlin after Putin’s 2012 reelection.
In the following years, the Russian authorities gradually increased pressure on the opposition and its leaders. According to Russian journalist and commentator Oleg Kashin, this political campaign of repression and the weakening of the opposition eliminated Navalny’s competitors.
“During the  Bolotnaya protests, Navalny was one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, along with Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, etc,” says Kashin. “Then, it was like the nursery rhyme in Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And then there were none’ – one by one, [these leaders] either got killed, left the country or just decided to retire from active work.”
Navalny’s greatest success was to get the Kremlin to recognise him as the sole opposition leader, says Kashin. As a result, the authorities focused their repressive tactics on him and his followers.
Navalny faced what he alleged was a politically motivated charge of embezzlement in 2014, multiple arrests, and various physical assaults, including one that almost blinded him. His supporters were also frequently attacked and detained.
But he pressed on with blogging, posting political videos on his popular YouTube channel and running anti-corruption investigations, which attracted a broader base of supporters.
In late 2016, he announced his intention to run in the presidential elections. Then in early March 2017, he released a Youtube video of an investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s luxury properties. The video got more than 27 million views to date.
Riding the wave of public anger that the investigation provoked, Navalny organised nationwide demonstrations on March 26 – the biggest since the 2011-2012 protest wave.
He then embarked on building a network of offices across the country to support his presidential campaign. Releasing what some called a “populist” programme based on anti-corruption slogans and contradictory liberal and leftist socioeconomic policies, Navalny managed to attract a broad base of support.
Through various pressure tactics – including searches and arrests – the authorities interfered with his campaign and eventually officially barred him from running in the elections, citing the criminal conviction from the 2014 embezzlement case.
Despite not being able to run in the elections, Navalny was still successful in building a vast network of supporters. His campaign opened offices in some 80 cities across the country, reaching even smaller cities where opposition politics had almost died down.
“Until I joined [the Navalny campaign], I was a very apolitical person. I was angry [about the situation in the country], but I didn’t see who can challenge those in power,” said 28-year-old Evgeny Pashutkin, the coordinator for Navalny’s campaign in Saransk, a city of 300,000, about 650km southeast of Moscow.
The city had an office of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and one coordinator for Yabloko Party, but Pashutkin said they were not very active and he did not see them as parties that could make any difference.
Everything changed for him last year after he watched Navalny’s video about Medvedev’s properties and decided to join the March 26 protest in Saransk. He was also involved in establishing Navalny’s campaign office in the city.
“I saw how [the authorities] don’t like what we were doing, how they were trying to pressure us, to interfere, that was the biggest motivation [to keep doing it],” said Pashutkin.
He continues to work for the Navalny campaign, even after it had to restructure after the elections and stop paying for coordinators’ salaries and rent for dozens of regional offices due to lack of funding, including the Saransk one.
Although currently, the campaign is maintaining only 45 offices across the country, on May 5, it managed to organise protests in some 90 cities. One of these cities was Saransk, where 160 people attended the demonstration, in Pashutkin’s estimation.
Many of Navalny’s volunteers responsible for the mobilisation effort are young people. Most of those who have volunteered in Saransk are below 35, the youngest of them being a 15-year-old, Pashtkin said.
In Novosibirsk, a Siberian city with a population of 1.4 million, more than half of the people who volunteered at Navalny’s campaign office were between 18 and 35 years of age and a significant number were minors, said Sergey Boyko, who had been the local campaign coordinator.
“[The minors] became many more when the authorities started to fight it, when in schools they started telling them that it’s not allowed to wear Navalny badges or put Navalny stickers on mobile phones,” said Boyko, who now manages the Moscow campaign office. “The authorities themselves popularised Navalny among the youth because they started [these] repressions in schools.”
According to him, Navalny has been able to attract such following among the youth because he “speaks their language”.
His campaign has maintained vast and sophisticated social media presence, which has emerged as an alternative source of information and criticism of the regime. It has been producing live and recorded high-quality content for YouTube and actively engaging with supporters on all major social media networks.
This level of success in communicating with a younger audience has not been achieved by any other political power, said Boris Kagarlitsly, the director of the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements in Moscow.
“While Navalny is very much fitting [in] this culture, this generation, the left, which is much more intellectual, is totally unfit in cultural terms,” he said.
But while Navalny has managed to wield significant mobilisation power, his political model might not be sustainable in the long term. According to Kagarlitsky, Navalny’s political programme is shaky and contradictory.
“It’s as if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn decided to write a programme together,” he said.
It currently attracts members of the business community with a promise of neoliberal economic reforms and radicalised youth with its progressive leftist social policies. But if Navalny is to get to power, these contradictions would be exposed, said Kagarlitsy.
“I think people like Navalny can have a lot of success in a situation of crisis. The problem of these people is that once they get to power or close to power, they [falter] usually because they cannot draw a political line,” he explained.
Navalny’s political project has another weakness – it is centred around him, says Kagarlitky. “Without him, the system collapses,” he said.
The absence of other prominent figures from Navalny’s political project in the media spotlight has prompted some Russian commentators to talk about a “personality cult”. Navalny has also been accused of being authoritarian and mistreating his staff and volunteers. Some have gone as far as calling him Putin 2.0.
According to Kashin, his political project mirrors the dynamics of Putin’s power.
“Navalny is an anti-Putin. Putin is the leader of Russia without any alternatives and Navalny is the leader of the opposition without any alternatives,” he says. “His biggest weakness is the same as Putin’s – a tendency towards authoritarianism, intolerance towards opponents and the desire to be the only one.”
Boyko, however, rejects these accusations. He says there are open discussions and disagreements in the team and Navalny does admit his mistakes.
“Russians, in general, are used to paternalistic structures and people often look for leaders. Inside our structure, I don’t think we have that, we don’t have personality cults,” he says.
Asked about what would happen to the pollical project if Navalny were to leave, Boyko says it is difficult to answer.
“It is not very good that there’s Putin and Alexei and no one else. I would like it if there were other people, other political leaders at the level of Alexei, who challenge those in power and with whom we can work together,” he says.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova