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Is Alexey Navalny Russia's Mandela -- or the Kremlin's Opposition Candidate?

It's been a topsy-turvy several months for Alexey Navalny, the fiery Russian opposition leader who has been compared to everyone from Nelson Mandela to Vaclav Havel. First, in July, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling nearly $500,000 from a state-owned timber company. Then, a day later, as protests against the verdict swelled, the 37-year-old anti-corruption activist was freed in a surprise move. In September, Navalny managed to compete in Moscow's mayoral race but lost to incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, who nearly doubled Navalny's vote count. A month later, Russia's Constitutional Court ruled that a law banning convicted criminals, including those with suspended sentences, from running for office was unconstitutional ("Good news, my brother criminals," Navalny tweeted at the time). And just last week, a Russian court suspended Navalny's jail sentence, though it appears Russian law would still prevent him from running in Russia's 2018 presidential elections, as he has discussed doing.   

"It's clear for me that the authorities are trying by all means to hound me out of politics, coming up with some restrictions and fabricated cases," Navalny observed after receiving his suspended sentence. 

But the ups-and-downs Navalny has endured in recent months raise a question: Is Navalny really the "man Vladimir Putin fears most," as the Wall Street Journal has crowned him, or is he the man the Kremlin has decided to manage as a credible -- but ultimately beatable -- opposition figure?

Acccording to the British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, he may be more of the latter. And there's evidence for that theory. In an interview with a Russian newspaper published on Monday, for instance, Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow's newly elected mayor, admitted that he consulted with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides about what Navalny's candidacy in the city's mayoral election before it was held. "I considered that Navalny should take part in the election and [their] attitude to it was positive," Sobyanin, a member of Putin's United Russia party, recalled (the Kremlin has insisted that it has not interfered with the legal twists and turns in Navalny's case).

In a recent paper for the Legatum Institute on the country's "postmodern dictatorship," Pomerantsev argues that Putin's Russia functions behind an elaborate façade of democracy. A case in point: the Russian news service RT, where, behind the glossy graphics, prominent Western commentators, native English-speaking anchors, and CNN-style reporting, the content is actually tightly controlled by a small group of Russian editors whose politics echo the Kremlin's.

As Pomerantsev writes, the Russian government "works less by oppressing narratives but by co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist in." Its most defining feature, he says, is "a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power."

Pomerantsev claims that the Kremlin began integrating Navalny into the political system as soon as he rose to prominence in 2011 by leading anti-government protests that accused the Kremlin of rigging parliamentary elections. First the Russian government coopted Navalny's appeals for good government and patriotism, then it started managing the opposition leader himself. As the New York Times reported last month, Vyacheslav Volodin, a prominent Putin aide opted during a closed-door meeting to permit a more democratic and open mayoral election in September in order to avoid protests similar to those led by Navalny two years ago -- a model reportedly called "competition without change." Sobyanin even helped Navalny get the necessary signatures to enter Moscow's mayoral race, assuming he would get less than 10 percent of the vote. "[T]he rules of engagement were ultimately rigged: Navalny has a potential five-year prison  sentence hanging over him and was not allowed to appear on federal television channels," Pomerantsev notes.

But with an energetic, American-style campaign complete with promotional stickers and a massive volunteer corps, Navalny fared much better than the Kremlin had anticipated, garnering 27 percent of the vote, according to official results (his campaign presented ample evidence of voter fraud and demanded a recount, to no avail).

Now Navalny finds himself out of politics, with a suspended prison sentence and little hope of competing in the 2018 presidential elections.

"We've come to the point where an innocent person is given a sentence, deprived of his electoral rights...and the people celebrate," Boris Nemtsov, another opposition leader, wrote on his Facebook page last week, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Pomerantsev's paper was recently discussed during a panel at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. The key discussion starts around 26 minutes into the clip:

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

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