Jewish Savvy Gives Challenger Boost in Moscow Mayor Race

Underdog Alexei Navalny Takes on Putin Favorite

Moscow Mayoral: Candidate Alexei Navalny, shown hugging his wife, is denying making anti-Semitic comments.
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Moscow Mayoral: Candidate Alexei Navalny, shown hugging his wife, is denying making anti-Semitic comments.

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Published September 03, 2013.
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Polls conducted in late August in Moscow showed Sobyanin with a commanding lead, with 50 percent to 62 percent of the vote, followed by Navalny with 16 percent to 26 percent. The differential, coupled with what Volkov says is an effort by Russian authorities to restrict the campaign’s ability to get out its message, has led to some innovative strategies.

Volkov and Kats have helped Navalny build a massive presence on social networking websites, including a social network especially designed for his supporters. The candidate also has held town hall meetings with residents, “which are pretty standard elsewhere in the world, but strangely almost never happen here,” Kats said.

The campaign also has launched an online platform called Mosvpiska, which allows volunteers from outside Moscow to stay for free at the homes of Muscovites backing Navalny. Volkov says 40,000 people have registered their residences as Navalny homes on Mosvpiska and that half the registered homes are occupied with out-of-town volunteers.

“The campaign gets more volunteers, the volunteers get a place to stay for free and the opposition grows,” Volkov said. “Plus there’s no administrational hassle involved because the volunteers communicate directly online.”

For Navalny, whose slogan is “Change Russia, start with Moscow,” the mayoral campaign is about much more than who gets to run the nation’s capital city. Russia’s recent ban on “gay propaganda” is seen by many in the opposition as merely the latest example of the corruption of democracy that has become endemic in the Putin era. Navalny hopes that by getting elected, he can bring newcomers to power and change the country’s political paradigm.

“The Navalny campaign is not about managing the city better, that’s not the point,” said Kats, 28, a Hebrew teacher turned professional poker player who shocked many with his successful bid last year to get elected to the municipal council of a Moscow administrative district. “The point is to make big changes in the political life of the country.”

Thin and unassuming, with shaggy hair and powerful organizational skills, Kats lived in Israel for nine years before returning to Moscow at 17. Journalist Elena Kalashnikova recently wrote of Kats that he is a “strange outsider” in the Russian opposition, with a down-to-earth style more focused on securing sidewalk space for his constituents than on bringing down Putin.

For his part, Kats believes that living in Israel gives him an advantage in that he thinks differently from many Russians.

“Here people don’t believe they will succeed, they don’t believe in themselves, whereas in Israel they’re encouraged to go after what they want,” said Kats, the founder of an agency that represents poker players.

Kats believes Navalny has an “excellent chance” of making it to the second round of elections, a prospect that will only materialize if Sobyanin fails to win 50 percent of the vote on Sept. 8.

In pitching himself to Moscow Jews, Sobyanin can point to the opening of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a $50 million institution funded by the Russian state. Hanukkah celebrations are now held at the Kremlin, and under Putin’s leadership more than a dozen Russian cities have given land and building permits to Jewish communities.

Yet some Russian Jews find all this irrelevant.

“Sept. 8 is not about electing the president of Russian Jewry,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a writer for L’chaim. “Putin is good for Jews but he’s bad for Russia. For more than 20 years we did not have political prisoners. Now we do.”


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