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[Reporter Aaron Mate of the Real News Network interviews Stephen F. Cohen, by The Real News Network]
Stephen F. Cohen is Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies, History and Politics at New York University and Princeton University.
AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News, I'm Aaron Mate'. Russian politician Alexei Navalny is calling for a series of protests and a boycott of next year's presidential election. This comes after Russia's Central Election Commission barred Navalny from running because of a conviction on fraud and corruption charges. Navalny says the case against him is politically motivated. He is often described as President Vladimir Putin's strongest challenger, even though polls show he has just two percent support. This comes as Putin has formally registered for the March 2018 vote, where he will seek a fourth term.
Professor Cohen, welcome. Let's start with Navalny. What is the significance of him being barred from running in the election? The way it's being talked about here is that Putin is trying to sideline his strongest challenger.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it's not clear he is his strongest challenger. As you said Aaron, the polls, and these are not Kremlin polls, but fairly independent polls, give Navalny, if the election were held tomorrow, somewhere between two and maybe six percent. That would make him fourth or fifth. No, that's not right, it would make him third behind a guy named Zhirinovsky, who heads a very Nationalist Party and has run against Putin four or five times. He usually gets about that. And the Communist Party candidate, who will not be this time next year the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, but a stand-on. And my guess is the Communist Party would probably get, if given half a decent fair shake, that is some television time, probably 10 percent.
So Navalny, at least based on the polls, is not the strongest candidate. What he does have is a constituency that alarms the Kremlin, and that is young people, particularly educated young people, who like Navalny's kind of in your face, "you're all corrupt, " assault on the Kremlin. So, he has real appeal in the country. Personally, as a student of Russia, and having spent so many years following Russian politics, I wish they would put Navalny on the ballot because I'd like to see what he gets. It would be very interesting to know what voters really think of him because polls as we know don't give you an accurate picture.
They're using as a reason not to put him on the ballot, that a person who is a convicted felon cannot run for, I don't remember whether it's any office, but cannot run for federal office. He has one, maybe one and a half felony convictions. He says they were political frame-ups.
Here's an interesting sidebar and then I'll let this go. The woman who is head of the Electoral Commission, her name is Ella Pamfilova, is a much-venerated civil rights democratic activist in Russia, with a long history. Putin made her the head of the Electoral Commission and she was the one who, yesterday or very recently announced, occluding to Navalny that he could not be on the ballot because of the convictions. But she added, because she has a humane element to her, "I wish I could put you on the ballot because I would like to see how many voters support you. But according to law, I cannot because your convictions stand."
So, formally and legally that's the reason he's not on the ballot. Let me just end by saying it would not surprise me if the Kremlin figured a way to have his conviction reheard, the felony set aside and put him on the ballot because Putin would have reasons to want him on the ballot. That is, to get a bigger turnout, to infuse some excitement in an election that appears rather ho-hum. So, I don't think this story is over yet, or possibly not over.
AARON MATÉ: But then, that raises the question. Do you think Navalny is right when he says that the initial charges against him were politically motivated, designed to keep him off the ballot?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, the original charges were a number of years ago. My memory may not be accurate on this but I think this goes back six, seven years before there was any talk of him running for the presidency. So, I don't think the answer is they cooked up these charges against him so that four or five years later, he couldn't run for the presidency.
As for the second question, I have a firm rule: What I don't know, I don't evaluate. I don't know if the charges were legitimate or not. I didn't follow the case that closely. I know it was upheld in the Russian appellate system. You may say that means nothing but sometimes convictions are struck down. But I also know that the European Court of whatever it is said it was a political conviction.
AARON MATÉ: Hmm. And you mentioned the Communists. So, they've chosen as their candidate Pavel Grudinin, if I have that name close to right.
STEPHEN COHEN: I think it's, I 've never heard of him but I think it's Grudinin, but it doesn't matter.
AARON MATÉ: Grudinin. Okay well, so in terms of their platform, you're suggesting that they have the strongest chance of challenging Putin, even though it's widely assumed that Putin will win. What kind of platform will they be running on to challenge Putin's agenda?