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Attempts to halt Kremlin critic Navalny have failed so far

MOSCOW – All the attempts over the years to stop the work of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny have failed — so far.

He’s been jailed repeatedly and twice put on trial for embezzlement and fraud. He's been put under house arrest and splashed in the face with green antiseptic, damaging his sight. He was hospitalized last year for a suspected poisoning while in custody. His brother was jailed for over three years on fraud charges.

Now Navalny is in an induced coma in a Berlin hospital after suffering what German authorities say was a poisoning with a chemical nerve agent while the opposition leader and corruption fighter was traveling from Siberia on Aug. 20. The Kremlin has denied involvement, and questioned whether he was poisoned at all.

Initially stunned by the attempt on his life, his supporters soon got back to work on their latest campaign against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We’ve got more anger and more motivation to work harder in order to, among other things, show the Kremlin that these methods of pressuring the opposition don’t work,” said Lyubov Sobol, one of Navalny’s closest allies.

His top strategist Leonid Volkov said Navalny's team put all their regular work on hold as they arranged his transfer from a hospital in Omsk, where the plane carrying the unconscious activist had made an emergency landing. They publicized his plight for 48 hours, from the moment the plane landed in Omsk to the minute when the medevac plane carrying Navalny took off for Berlin.

“Starting from Sunday, when he was already in Berlin, I firmly told everyone — and everyone understood, of course — that, ’Guys, I’m sorry but we need to get back to our normal work,'” Volkov said. “We’ve got to slog away at Smart Voting.”

The Smart Voting project was launched in 2018 and is designed to oust the Kremlin’s dominant United Russia party — which Navalny has dubbed “the party of crooks and thieves” — from regional governments and legislatures.

The project aims to identify and campaign for candidates who are most likely to beat those backed by the Kremlin in various elections.

Last year, the Smart Voting project helped opposition candidates win 20 out of 45 seats on the Moscow city council. This year, Navalny’s team hopes to use it in 31 Russian regions where elections on various levels are scheduled for Sept. 13. In some of those regions, the team put forward its own candidates.

Navalny, 44, has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side even though he is barred from running against Putin because of the 2017 conviction for embezzlement — a charge he says was politically motivated. In public statements, Putin refuses to even speak Navalny's name.

Through his two popular YouTube channels detailing government corruption, Navalny’s reach has spread across the vast country. In 2017, he set up a network of campaign offices in a bid to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Even though he was banned from running against Putin, Navalny kept the infrastructure in place.

These regional “headquarters” began their own investigations of graft by local officials and recruited activists, some of whom would later run for office. Navalny believes that ending the dominance of United Russia in regional parliaments and administrations will undermine “the formal mechanism” of Putin’s rule.

After Navalny was hospitalized in Germany, his team used the moment to promote Smart Voting, filling social media with calls to register on the project’s online platform that tells voters which candidates to support in their area. Volkov said the appeals have increased registrations.

On Monday, they released a 40-minute expose of corruption in Novosibirsk, a large city in Siberia where a coalition of over 30 opposition candidates is running for the city council. The video, which has gotten over 4 million views on YouTube, was shot during Navalny’s fateful trip to Siberia.

“The foundation of Putin’s power is not the State Duma, as one would think. No," Navalny says in the video, stressing the importance of the local elections.

“Their main power is in United Russia having a majority in every regional legislature and a majority in every big city council. If (United Russia) loses this majority, the power of the villains melts away immediately,” he says.

From these regional roots, Navalny’s team hopes to go all the way to the State Duma -- Russia’s lower house of parliament -- and deploy the Smart Voting strategy in the 2021 parliamentary election.

“It’s a dress rehearsal, a decisive test of strength before the elections to the State Duma,” Volkov said.

Navalny’s ability to mobilize voters next year poses a key challenge for the Kremlin, because those elections will determine who controls the State Duma in 2024. That's when Putin’s current term expires and he is expected to seek re-election, thanks to a reset of his term limits after lawmakers and voters approved changes to Russia's constitution this year. And Putin's approval ratings have fallen recently amid growing public frustration over the declining economy.

The Smart Voting strategy could indeed upend government plans for the new parliament, said Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program, but he said Navalny’s personal involvement is crucial.

“Navalny is unique because no one but him … has enough authority to consolidate votes for various non-Kremlin forces and ensure defeat of the Kremlin’s candidates,” Petrov said.

Still, Navalny has built an organization that goes beyond the appeal of one man. With him jailed so often, his supporters are used to working on their own, as is his network of over 40 regional cells nationwide.

“Navalny was imprisoned for 30 or 50 days last year, and the work didn’t stop. It’s the same now. Yes, of course, it was a shock for us, but we didn’t stop our campaigns,” said Ksenia Fadeyeva, who runs the regional headquarters in the Siberian city of Tomsk and is running for city council.

At the same time, his supporters admit that his charisma and popularity are an asset, even though his anti-corruption campaigns have angered many in power even outside the Kremlin.

Tomsk was one of Navalny’s stops on his recent trip to Siberia. Fadeyeva says she was “pleasantly surprised” by how well he is known.

“We walked around the city center, and a lot of people recognized him. To be honest, I didn’t expect that many people to approach (Navalny), say hello, ask for a photo, want to talk,” Fadeyeva said.

A 40-minute video exposing corruption in Tomsk was released Thursday by Navalny's team, and in five hours received over 850,000 views.

“We don’t hide that our political organization — vast and sophisticated — is built around a charismatic leader, which is both a strength and a weakness,” Volkov said. “A leaderless protest can’t be beheaded, but it is much harder for a leaderless protest to succeed.”

Volkov admits that hardly anyone on the team has as much “political capital” or could rally people like Navalny, who could come up with “thoughts and ideas that were interesting to a lot of people,” as well as effective forms of communication.

“The Kremlin understands that, and it understands that with ... one horrific criminal act it can try and nullify a significant part of what we’ve done,” he added.

In the meantime, there’s no other option but to continue the work.

“You do what you can. We campaign the way we can," Volkov said. "We invest all the resources that we have. And we do what we do.”

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Associated Press journalist Alexander Roslyakov contributed.