by Fabrice Deprez
In early December, all the information about one of Alexei Navalny’s regional campaign offices disappeared from the campaign website of the activist-turned-opposition-politician.
The Popular Headquarters of Yessentuki had been set up less than six months earlier and was one of the Putin critic’s few offices in the Caucasus region. On VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network, the local office had managed to gather more than 400 followers, despite not posting anything between 26 August and the end of October. The group’s last public post on the 27th was an announcement for an upcoming “walk of free people” which took place two days later: 7 local activists walked around the city, handing out flyers to local residents under a bright October sun.
However, things seemed to have been brewing behind the scenes. That same week, the VKontakte group of the local office lost 144 followers, the biggest drop recorded of any of the 81 regional offices in that period. A few days later, Yessentuki was quietly taken off the map on Navalny’s official website boasting his campaign’s presence across Russia, while the local office’s dedicated page was deleted. Though inactive, the VKontakte page is still online.
VKontakte has been a key tool in Alexei Navalny’s drive to get out of the Moscow bubble and spread his message across the regions. The activist has used the site to stage rallies and protests, as well as to share information about the work of local supporters. When activists in far-flung regions started being pressured by local authorities, it was also used to publicize their cases and gather support. In late October 2017, Navalny supporters from the industrial city of Korolyov in the Moscow region were threatened by police officers after one of the activists tried to convince them that Swedish police earned much more. The exchange was filmed and shared on the VKontakte account of the regional office, which only had about 200 subscribers at the time. It was viewed 25,000 times on VKontakte and more than 100,000 times on Youtube, reaching a national audience.
Nearly all of Navalny’s 81 regional headquarters have set up their own VKontakte pages, which are collectively followed by more than 143,000 people. Along with the standard campaign offices, the Navalny team also set up “popular headquarters” in smaller cities, which only differ in that they do not receive funds from the organization (and therefore rely entirely on volunteer work).
This regional presence has been hailed as one of Navalny’s biggest successes. Navalny himself claimed to have created “the largest political movement with a regional network in the history of modern [post-Soviet] Russia”. Is that the case? We wanted to know, so we decided to take a look at how strong the regional offices looked on VKontakte. Each week since 17 October 2017, we recorded the number of VKontakte followers of each of Navalny’s 80-or-so (the total number has slightly varied over time) regional offices, as listed on his official campaign website:
Popularity ranges from more than 12,000 followers for the Saint Petersburg office to a mere 154 for the office of the mining city of Vorkuta in the Arctic circle. Offices in Tosno and Kalininsk had even lower numbers (around 50 followers) but both disappeared from the Navalny campaign website in January, barely a month after they were launched. The local coordinator in Tosno said that his disappointment in Navalny explained the closure of the branch – claiming he had “only received criticism” from the central office – and announced he would join presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak.
The data should be taken with a grain of salt: the fact that the page of the Saint Petersburg office has twice as many followers as that of the Moscow office doesn’t mean the Northern capital is the true heart of pro-Navalny sentiment. Rather, it’s more likely that Navalny supporters in Moscow don’t feel the need to follow a local page and are simply subscribed to the general Navalny page.
It does however show Navalny’s success on social media over traditional Russian parties. Though overall numbers might seem low, local offices from the Navalny movement are more popular on VKontakte than regional pages from other Russian parties in most cases. For example, Navalny’s Kaliningrad page boasts 2,843 followers, while United Russia’s local group has 1,781 members, and the Communist Party just 352. On the other side of the country, in Chelyabinsk, Navalny’s local office also dominates the social media landscape with more than 4,400 followers, followed by the Communist party (1,941 followers), United Russia (811 followers) and, far behind, the Yabloko liberal party.
It’s not just that Navalny has made heavy use of social media, much more than traditional Russian parties. His campaign has also handled the issue in a very top-down fashion, setting the template for how every page should be organized and run so that all local offices follow to the letter. In contrast, local pages for traditional Russian parties are much more chaotic, with each local office seemingly free to run their page (or group) as they want to.
Though Navalny’s movement is most successful in the biggest cities when it comes to VKontakte, a look at the number of followers per 100,000 inhabitants shows a comparably stronger foothold in smaller cities. Here’s a good sampling:
With almost 3,000 followers in a city with less than 500,000 inhabitants, the western enclave of Kaliningrad is, at least on VKontakte, a key spot for Navalny’s movement.
The small cities sampled also saw large growth in the period we looked at (from October 2017):
Vladimir, a city one hour away from Moscow with a population just over 300,000 not only has as many followers as Omsk and its more than a million inhabitants, but its VKontakte page grew massively during the period recorded, doubling in just a few weeks.
How was this accomplished? As it turns out, Navalny himself coming to the cities was a key factor in the growth of the regional offices on VKontakte. This next graph looks at the weekly growth of the campaign headquarters of Chelyabinsk, Kemerovo, Novokuznetsk and Vladimir between 27 October and 18 February:
Nearly all of these spikes coincide with either Navalny staging a rally in the city or – in the case of the last spike – with a nationwide protest called by his movement. Between 500 and one thousand people came to Vladimir on 25 November to see Navalny, and about 2,000 people a day later in Chelyabinsk; about 500 in Kemerevo two weeks earlier, and just under a thousand people attended Navalny’s rally in Novokuznetsk on 9 December.
Local rallies have been very important for Navalny to set up a real presence in the regions. But this also means that since the former anticorruption activist has stopped campaigning (he was barred from doing so by the Central Electoral Commission), the growth of the regional offices’ VKontakte pages has seen a downward trend.
The big exception here is the last week in January, when Navalny’s movement led a nation-wide protest to push for a boycott in the election. The protest also led to the biggest follower growth among the VKontakte pages of Navany’s local offices since October with more than 4,000 new followers. However, beyond this particular week, local pages have either stopped growing or even started losing followers.
In a way, this is to be expected: Navalny stopped campaigning, and it is obviously harder to gain traction with a boycott campaign. It shows, however, that real-life political actions remain key to Navalny’s regional growth, especially if Navalny himself is involved. The big question now is whether Navalny will be able to maintain this regional presence after the election: the financial issue will force the movement to trim its regional network to about 25 headquarters, Navalny told Swiss outlet La Tribune de Genève. “Unfortunately, it would too expensive to keep all the branches,” he said.
But things likely won’t be easy even for the remaining offices, as Russian authorities might feel more at ease to crack down on regional activists once the electoral period has passed.