Last year, Alexei Navalny led street rallies against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This year, President Putin pushed back.
Navalny was tried on charges of stealing timber. Two weeks ago, he was convicted and sentenced to five years behind bars. The sentence knocked Russia’s most popular opposition leader out of the country's next presidential election in 2018.
Then the unexpected occurred. The morning after going to jail, Navalny was released to run for mayor of Moscow, Russia’s largest city. He is up against Sergei Sobyanin, Putin's former chief of staff, who was appointed mayor three years ago.
“They want Moscow elections to be legitimate, to legitimize Sergei Sobyanin, and to get him re-elected having at least some viable opponent,” said, Lilia Shevtsova, who analyzes Russian politics for Carnegie Moscow Center, referring to Kremlin strategists. “And at the same time, they would like to play a chess game and to undermine Navalny’s potential, and they believe this is still possible.”
Sobyanin wants to earn the mayor's title in elections scheduled for September 8.
Out on the street, there is strong support for Sobyanin, who is changing Moscow, creating new pedestrian streets, cutting traffic into downtown, rebuilding parks, and tearing down billboards and outdoor advertising.
Vagan Davidyants, a lawyer, has his office on one of the new car-free streets.
“For the last two years we have seen the changes, and I think he is at the halfway mark of his job, his plans,” he said one day after work. “So I think we have to give him the next four years or five years to do all the things he planned to do. Because two years is not enough, he’s on the first step of his changes for Moscow. So I’m going to vote for him.”
Yuliya Zueva, a pedicab driver, also likes the changes she sees. She said that Sobyanin did a good job running an oil-rich region of Russia five years ago and that now, he is making positive changes in Moscow.
Navalny is blocked from state-run television. His supporters communicate and raise money through the Internet. Others say Russia needs a change, what they call more political fresh air.
Maria, a retired theater director, voiced her support for Navalny as she stopped by a sidewalk campaign tent.
“I’m voting for Navalny, and not because he’s some kind of superhero, but because I think that he’s a real person,” she said.
Igor Tarasov, an IT worker, was handing out leaflets for Navalny and said, “With him the government will become more transparent, more democratic, and more pro-Western.”
But then a policeman intervened to stop volunteers from handing out the leaflets.
Later, Tarasov told VOA that the officer first wanted to arrest him, but that in a compromise, said only one person would be allowed to distribute the leaflets.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, old habits die hard. Many people predict that, once the mayoral election is over, the Kremlin will return Navalny to prison.
But this time, he would go bolstered by the votes of tens - maybe hundreds -- of thousands of people in the nation’s capital.