RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A campaign for mayor is in full swing in Moscow, with the election set for Sunday. It's the first time Russian voters are selecting their mayor in an election, in 10 years. And there's little doubt about the outcome of the race.
Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin is expected to win, but his main challenger is the popular opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who's running a Western-style campaign boosted by volunteers and funded by online donations. Some say this campaign could change the way politics are played in Russia's biggest city. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
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COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: On a busy street next to a construction site, volunteers have set up a Navalny campaign spot. They cluster around a big cube hung with Navalny posters, passing out the candidate's brochures.
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FLINTOFF: Twenty-year-old Yulia says she's working for the campaign because it's a way to get people energized about politics.
YULIA: So if they want to make a change and if they think that Russia can be a better place to live, we should work with them.
FLINTOFF: Navalny campaign officials say they have about 14,000 registered volunteers, ranging from students and retirees to people who help with the effort when they get off work. They canvass for voters on Moscow subway cars and pass leaflets to drivers stalled in the city's notorious traffic jams.
Anton Fedyashin is a professor of Russian history at American University in Washington, D.C., but he's a native Muscovite who spent the summer in Moscow watching the campaign develop. He says the campaign has been a learning experience for both sides, teaching Navalny's supporters that it's one thing to protest the existing system.
ANTON FEDYASHIN: But it's another thing to actually appeal to mass audiences, to do the pavement pounding, which the liberals have never had to do, and I notice that Navalny finally came out with specific proposals for how to change the way that Moscow is run.
FLINTOFF: The incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has had to change his game too. Sobyanin isn't known for being a charismatic speaker. Many of his appearances are like this one, at the opening of a public park in Moscow's new city district.
MAYOR SERGEI SOBYANIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He points out that this is just one of many new parks in the area, part of his plan to make the city greener. And in fact some people joke that Sobyanin is giving out parks and pavement as part of his campaign.
But analyst Boris Makarenko says the incumbent mayor recognized that he needed to show the voters of Moscow more than a token campaign.
BORIS MAKARENKO: He knew that a campaign in a city full of Muscovites, who took to the streets in tens of thousands a couple of years ago, in a city like that you need a campaign as real as it gets.
FLINTOFF: Makarenko is chairman of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. He points out that Mayor Sobyanin helped Navalny get registered for the campaign, something that's nearly impossible for a political outsider.
Sobyanin also very publically refrained from using some of the techniques that incumbents in Russia often use to their advantage, such as absentee ballots, which can be easier to manipulate than direct votes.
Still, Sobyanin has refused to debate Navalny or any of his other challengers, and Navalny rarely gets anything but negative coverage on state-run media. A recent poll by the independent Levada Group shows Sobyanin leading with 58 percent of the vote.
Makarenko says he'll be surprised if Navalny gains more than 20 percent.
MAKARENKO: Still, that's a huge success for a newcomer, and for someone who several months ago was perceived as a street politician not good for any electoral process, and that makes him a national politician.
FLINTOFF: Navalny has said that he eventually wants to run for president, but his fate as a politician is in doubt. He was convicted this summer in a corruption trial on charges that his supporters say were trumped up to derail his political ambitions.
If he loses on appeal, he could go to prison, and he would be disqualified from running for office under Russian law. Regardless of the outcome, though, Navalny's volunteers say he will have changed the nature of the game.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.