Finding Alexei Navalny's Yekaterinburg campaign headquarters was a task in itself. Just a few steps away from the city's main pedestrian street, would-be visitors were left wandering through a serious of gloomy courtyards before finally turning a corner to find bored-looking police officers staring at their mobile phones. A handful of pro-Kremlin protesters waved their flags, some dressed as Cossacks for good measure. Among them some familiar faces from Moscow. Most were convinced that Navalny is an American agent.
The modest campaign office itself lies up a three-story fire escape, each step a little more wobbly than the last. Proof - if any was needed - that Navalny's team really is running on a tight budget. His campaign manager says average donations are running at 1,000 rubles (16 Euros). Indeed the campaign's biggest headache so far has been the decision by Yandex Money, Russia's equivalent to Paypal, to close Navalny's fundraising account. Yandex cites new rules banning use of the service for political aims – a move Navalny says is politically motivated.
Inside, Navalny preaches to the converted while taking questions from the press. In Russia's polarized media landscape that largely means liberal, online media. As far as Russian state TV is concerned, Navalny does not exist, at least out of court. Fighting corruption, shrinking purchasing power and Navalny's plan for a 25,000-ruble (400-euro) minimum wage dominated the questions. Whether or not Russians would actually get the chance to vote for Navalny come March 2018's presidential elections was barely discussed. Most of those in attendance seemed to take it as a given that Navalny's name would be on the ballot.
Embezzlement conviction grounds for disqualification?
On February 8, a court in Kirov handed Navalny a five-year suspended sentence for embezzlement. Navalny stands accused of forcing the director of a state company to sell 16 million rubles (260,000 euros) of lumber to an associate under market value, during his time as an adviser to a regional governor back in 2009.
It's the same case that the European Court of Human Rights threw out in 2016, calling the proceedings "arbitrary and unfair." Navalny and his co-defendant had been found "guilty of acts indistinguishable from regular commercial activities."
Navalny was scathing in his response to the verdict, arguing the prosecution had failed to provide any new evidence against him and mocking the judgement as "copy-paste." He has vowed to go back to Strasbourg. But that will take time. Once his appeals are exhausted, Navalny will have a criminal record, a circumstance that disqualifies him from holding public office under existing law.
Public opposition widespread, but far from unified
"I have the right to run for election. I will demand that I'm included – I have the constitution on my side," Navalny told DW. A lawyer by training, Navalny argues only custodial sentences have any bearing on the civil right to run for election. But given his form in the Russian courts, how will he make sure his name is on the ballot? People power. "Back in 2013, public support forced them to let me out of prison the day after they sentenced me to 5 years in prison," he remembers. What form that kind of public pressure would take Navalny refused to specify.
However, Navalny rejected criticism from parts of the Russian opposition who say his participation would only add legitimacy to a contest that they say is sure to be rigged against him – in terms of media access, finance and even vote counting. "I'm not legitimizing anything," he insists, stressing that to him it's more important to provide an alternative to pro-Kremlin opposition candidates - it's about 'doing what I have the right to do.'
Russians want democracy 'but afraid of the word'
A longtime thorn in President Vladimir Putin's side, Navalny is confident that his long-standing focus on free elections, economic freedoms and fighting corruption will pay off with Russian voters. When describing their ideal system of government, most Russians would describe democracy, he said, but are "afraid of the word," which was discredited by association with the chaotic transformation that characterized the 1990s and Russia's first post-Soviet brush with democracy.
Whether Navalny will be able to convince ordinary Russians that competitive elections do not necessarily mean the falling living standards and insecurity that accompanied them in the 1990s is going to be decisive for his campaign. The Kremlin has spent over a decade making the link between 'stability' and rising prosperity. Falling real wages now provide a chance to challenge that narrative.
Standing room only as Navalny meets volunteers
Across town people spilled out into the corridor of a shopping center as Navalny spoke to newly-registered campaign volunteers. After an uneventful cameo by pro-Kremlin protesters who hadn't made it into the campaign headquarters earlier in the day, the Navalny team says they registered some 600 volunteers. Many of those attending told DW it was their first experience of political activism. Tellingly, all of them had first heard of Navalny and his campaign online.
Kremlin watchers say no final decision has yet been taken on Navalny's participation in next year's presidential poll. But whatever the outcome, the next stage of Alexei Navalny's political evolution hinges on his ability to make the jump into the offline world and connect with the nearly 80 percent of Russians who rely on state television for information. Navalny's decision to fight this election – on or off the ballot papers - is set to give him ample opportunity to try.