THE OTHER day, a man living in a Moscow apartment had the temerity to affix to his balcony a campaign banner extolling the candidacy of Alexei Navalny, the anti- corruption rabble-rouser who is running for mayor of Moscow. When the police couldn’t make the man remove the banner, they dispatched a fellow, equipped with a window-washing harness, to the roof to rappel the building to deal with it. He, too, was foiled, at least for the time being.
There are few limits beyond which the Russian authorities will not go to harass, suppress and muzzle the candidacy of Mr. Navalny, the charismatic blogger-turned-opposition leader. Mr. Navalny, detested by high-ranking officials whose misdeeds he has exposed, became Vladimir Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1 by leading street protests after the tainted parliamentary elections in 2011. Even though polls show the Kremlin-backed incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, with a massive lead, the authorities are sparing no effort to tilt the playing field so that Mr. Navalny is not just beaten in the Sept. 8 election but trounced.
Mr. Navalny is all but banned from state television, from which most Russians get their news. He has been the subject of a smear campaign in the media, which have featured apparently baseless accusations about alleged foreign funding of his campaign, misuse of campaign funds and his supposed fascist tendencies.
For his part, Mr. Sobyanin, a colorless but able administrator appointed as mayor in 2010, has not deigned to join Mr. Navalny and a handful of lesser challengers in debates. He has mainly stayed aloof from the proceedings, perhaps hoping that the presence of Mr. Navalny will lend a veneer of legitimacy to his presumed victory.
Not everything has gone smoothly for Mr. Sobyanin. In an ossified system that has marginalized any genuine opposition, Mr. Navalny’s energetic, inventive campaign, savvy with social media, is a breath of fresh air that has attracted an enthusiastic corps of mainly young volunteers and backers.
Mr. Navalny has also continued his muckraking — for instance by reporting that a Moscow apartment worth millions is registered to Mr. Sobyanin’s 16-year-old daughter, and another pricey apartment in St. Petersburg is owned by his 25-year-old daughter. Still, Mr. Sobyanin has brushed aside those exposés, and Muscovites, inured to corruption, have barely blinked.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Navalny’s campaign will survive until election day. Convicted on trumped-up embezzlement charges last month, he was freed the next day, but he would immediately be forever disqualified from politics if he loses his appeal; he could also face a prison term of up to five years.
For the time being, a country where politics and democracy have been reduced to a charade is at last witnessing something different: a bona fide dissident candidate, with grass-roots support, tilting against the entrenched powers. Mr. Navalny may be unlikely to win, but the mere fact of his candidacy offers an example to Russians starved for the oxygen of real choice.