Article published on the Bear Market Brief website on March 8th, 2018.
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 announcementfor 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.