Russia's opposition leader and anti-graft blogger Alexei Navalny speaks to the crowd in Moscow July 30, 2013. Navalny is campaigning for the September 8 Moscow mayoral elections. The board behind him reads: "Change Russia. Start from Moscow". (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)

Mayoral Candidate A raises questions about Candidate B’s campaign literature. The police, who report to the incumbent, Candidate C, respond by raiding the print shop where the literature is produced. Candidate D raises a stink, because he was using the same printing firm.

That’s hardball. And that was just Thursday.

Meanwhile, Candidate E portrays himself as the “Batman” who will save Moscow, and Candidate F lets himself be photographed in nothing more than a bath towel and an odd hat to demonstrate his Russian masculinity.

And the police, when they are not closing print shops, are rounding up hundreds of Vietnamese who are in Moscow looking for work, in a developing election-season operation that seems designed to pander to Muscovites’ worst instincts when it comes to immigrants — but it just might be a genuine attempt to blot out the huge and unspoken problem of forced labor.

Of the six men running for Moscow’s top job in the Sept. 8 election, the score card says only two really count: the acting mayor, Sergei Sobyanin (Candidate C), and his fiercest challenger, Alexei Navalny (Candidate B). The polls show Sobyanin, the establishment candidate, with a large lead. Navalny’s team wants to keep him under 50 percent and force a runoff.

On Sunday, following a rally, Navalny was detained by police. After what they described as a “conversation,” he was released. But by the time the election results come in next month, Navalny will probably be headed to prison.

In a trial that he and his supporters denounced as a farce, he was convicted in July of embezzlement in the city of Kirov and sentenced to six years. But the day after the conviction, prosecutors abruptly changed course and insisted that he be released on appeal, no doubt heeding instructions from Moscow.

His chances of winning the appeal are exceedingly slim, but it has kept him out of prison all summer. By most accounts, the Kremlin was eager to have Navalny take part in Moscow’s first mayoral election in a decade, because this would lend Sobyanin’s inevitable victory some legitimacy.

That never meant Navalny was going to get a fair chance. His campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, complains that he cannot get outlets to take Navalny’s ads and that the campaign has been denied access to all but the most obscure TV channels. Police raids aside, he said Wednesday that 20 Navalny volunteers have been temporarily detained by officers this summer. But, he said, “This is now such a normal thing in Russia that nobody really cares anymore.”

In one case, the police broke down the door of an apartment where they believed volunteers were stockpiling unregistered campaign materials, and two volunteers were sent to detention for 15 days.

Navalny tried unsuccessfully to get Sobyanin stricken from the ballot. Then Moscow elections officials said they would consider removing Navalny instead because of alleged campaign violations, though they later decided to let him off with a warning. Volkov said he believes the heat will keep getting turned up.

“We expect the main obstacles to arise in the last two weeks,” he said.

Sobyanin’s campaign accuses Navalny of receiving money from abroad and of being involved in a murky business deal in Montenegro. Navalny denies it. His campaign asks how Sobyanin’s two daughters, ages 16 and 25, could have afforded to buy three
multimillion-dollar apartments in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sobyanin says it is all above board.

Stanislav Apetyan, writing in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad, said voters would see Navalny’s accusation, dragging in his opponent’s children, as an underhanded, “dirty” attack.

The issue of migrant labor

Navalny rose to prominence as an energetic campaigner against corruption, but he has also been sharply critical of the employment of migrant laborers in Moscow, a position that attracts a great deal of support here.

When, at the end of July, the police began raiding work sites and rounding up migrants, some saw it as a ham-handed attempt to preempt one of Navalny’s most potent issues. “People got the impression this is all disingenuous and the government’s only pretending to do something,” said Danila Medvedev, an advocate against the exploitation of migrant labor.

Volkov called it a “ridiculous and weird” show. Although Muscovites are most concerned about migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, police detained about 1,400 Vietnamese and other foreigners.

They were placed in a camp on the outskirts of Moscow, and every day the press portrayed the campaign as an effort to rid the city of undesirable migrants. Prominent human rights activists quickly denounced the roundups as abuses by the police. Referring to the “concentration camp” where the Vietnamese were held, the activists warned in a public letter to the authorities of a “brown cloud” of fascism settling over the country.

The camp closed Tuesday, and most of those detained have been sent home, according to the police. Their departure was voluntary, Medvedev said — and completely understandable. Living and working conditions for the workers, most of whom were sewing garments, were an outrage, he said, and those who received pay got very little. A large number, said Medvedev and another advocate, Vladimir Osechkin, had been reduced to what the U.S. State Department calls “forced labor.” Medvedev and Osechkin have another word for it: “slavery.”

Campaign promises

The decision to move against traffickers came from somewhere higher than the mayor’s office, the advocates said. Last year, Medvedev won publicity when he helped free Uzbeks working at a Moscow grocery store; that helped prompt the State Department to downgrade Russia’s standing in a global report on trafficking in June.

But standing up for migrant workers is not a good campaign strategy. Navalny has called for a visa requirement for people from Central Asia and has promised to reduce the number of migrants in the capital, although he does not say how he would do so.

Sobyanin told the Vedosmosti newspaper that the city’s markets, where many migrants work, are hotbeds of crime and promised to continue shutting them down. He has said he favors “Slavic” migrants. On Thursday, he said the city needs 200,000 guest workers to function, but no more.