Protests ahead of Moscow vote as Putin critic Navalny surges in polls

Russian opposition leader and anti-graft blogger Alexei Navalny (front) walks near his campaign headquarters in Moscow on Wednesday. His projected share of the vote jumped from just 3 percent in June to 18 percent in August, according to non-government polling group Levada-Center. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

MOSCOW -- The face of Russia's opposition has seen a last-minute surge in the polls -- but distrust in the democratic process brought his supporters to the streets Friday ahead of Moscow's first mayoral election in a decade.

Lawyer-turned-anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny rose to prominence when he addressed a 100,000-strong protest after the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012 and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of belonging to "a party of crooks and thieves."

The 37-year-old's campaign was launched days before he was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement after a trial he said was politically motivated. Navalny was able to continue with his mayoral bid after he was freed pending appeal, just a day after protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg alleging Putin was trying to silence him ended with 200 arrests.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul cited "apparent political motivations" in Navalny's trial while Catherine Ashton, vice-president of the European Commission, said the verdict "raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia."

Navalny initially struggled in the polls but his support has mushroomed since his release from prison on July 19. His projected vote share increased from 3 percent in June, to 8 percent in July, and up to 18 percent in August, according to non-governmental polling group Levada-Center.

Although Navalny appears to have no real chance of victory in Sunday's election, he is expected to get between 20 and 25 percent of the vote.

Denis Volkov, an analyst at Levada-Center, said authorities allowed Navalny to run against Putin-backed incumbent Sergey Sobyanin because he was not seen as a threat at the time.

"The authorities were not ready for him to be so effective," Volkov said.

Largely denied TV coverage, the charming and good-looking Navalny mobilized activists both online and in the streets. Sobyanin’s projected share of the vote, meanwhile, dropped from 78 percent in June to 58 percent last month.

Ekaterina Solomina has been handing out pro-Navalny leaflets this summer. She is one of thousands of young people who participated in street protests over the past two years to demonstrate their discontent with the government and what they see as a flawed voting system.

Ekaterina Solomina sees Moscow mayoral candidate and opposition leader Alexei Navalny "as a symbol of liberal ideas and changes." Albina Kovalyova / NBC News

"I went to all the protests, but I was rather passive," Solomina said. "But now during these elections my friends decided to volunteer, so we decided to do it together." 

She sees Navalny at the forefront of a movement that wants Russia to take a different political direction.

"I don't identify myself with him directly, but [I do associate myself] with him as a symbol of liberal ideas and changes, of course," she said.

Putin has dismissed Navalny as a hypocrite, citing his recent criminal conviction.

"This gentleman has taken on the very fashionable theme of fighting corruption," the Russian president told The Associated Press earlier this week. "And I say again, in order to fight with corruption you have to be crystal clear yourself. I unfortunately have a suspicion that this is just a way of getting votes and not a genuine desire to solve the problem."

However, some believe the fact Navalny is able to run for mayor -- instead of languishing in a jail cell -- is little more than Putin looking for an easy opponent in a bid to appear more democratic.

Navalny initially failed to get the required number of signatures from municipal deputies to stand for election, Volkov explained. But his opponent Sobyanin appealed to them to support him, saying it would be good for democracy.

"Putting Navalny in jail ahead of these elections and not allowing him to run, with him being the most prominent opponent of the government, would send a signal that Russia is afraid of competition, both internationally and domestically," said Dr. Sam Greene, director of the Russian Institute at Kings College London. "Russia is keen for the world to see it is not the Soviet Union."

Asked how fair and democratic this weekend's elections were likely to be, Greene replied with a blunt "not very." He said state media coverage created "a skewed playing field" toward Sobyanin.

Of the incumbent Sobyanin’s intensive TV campaign, Volkov added: "On the main channels you will see Sobyanin very often, and not in paid commercials, but in news channels and other programs all the time. It is Sobyanin, Sobyanin, Sobyanin -- constantly. It is manipulation. And in this sense the campaign is not very different from the previous one."

Russian opposition leader sentenced to 5 years 3:34

Green predicted that the widespread polling-station fraud of previous years would not be as much of a factor this time.

Nevertheless, people volunteering as independent polling-station observers -- now armed with iPhones and a keen knowledge of voting laws -- will be more important than ever, Volkov said.

"It will be a clash of the two cultures: The administration, which encourages a certain degree of electoral fraud, and these independent invigilators who want the opposite of that," Greene said.

As certain as the result of the election looks to analysts, Navalny's destiny looks far less predictable.

The poster boy of anti-Putin sentiment, he has been optimistically touted in some quarters as future presidential material.

But these prospects could be shattered if Navalny ever does become mayor of Moscow, according to Russian economist Konstantin Sonin.

Unlike former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who were both Moscow mayors, Navalny is a Muscovite and would be seen as too much of a representative of the city to win presidential votes elsewhere in Russia, Sonin wrote in the Moscow Times.

One thing appears certain: Russia's opposition will take to the streets again if Navalny is thrown back in prison.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Alexander Smith reported from London.