Blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny is often considered the unofficial leader of the Russian opposition. While he has generally been coy about officially assuming such a role, he has indeed recently announced that he would be interested in running for President as an opposition candidate [ru]. But how many people would support him in such an endeavor? How large is the core of his followers? As Navalny's show-trial for lumber embezzlement [GV] continues, such questions are perhaps more important than ever. Here are some data-points which could be used to make a rough approximation:
Social network followers. Navalny is an active user of both LiveJournal [ru] and Tweeter [ru], not so much of Facebook or VKontakte (his Facebook page is essentially an RSS feed of his Livejournal account). On LiveJournal, Russia's most popular blogging platform, he has 73,500 “friends“ [ru] signed up to follow his account. This number can be misleading in two ways. First, it does not include people who do not have LiveJournal accounts but still read his page. Second, it includes a number of followers who do not necessarily agree with his politics or activism, and would not, therefore, actively support him. Other followers could be “bots”, or fake accounts.
The same holds true for Twitter, where the proliferation of fake accounts has lead to services like Twitter Audit, which “audits” 5,000 random Twitter followers of an account and determines the likely percentage of these followers that are fake, or bots. In April, 2013 Twtter Audit approximated that out of @navalny's 344,000 total followers, only 134,000 were “real”. While this number is almost twice as high as the number of Navalny's LiveJournal friends, it is subject to similar caveats — these 134,000 aren't necessarily all “supporters.”
Active support: A better way to judge the number of Navalny's die-hard fans is to look at the number of people willing to do something for his anti-corruption causes. For example, according to the Wikipedia page of the RosPil project [ru], over 15,000 people have donated money to the fund tasked with identifying and exposing corrupt government procurement contracts. The number is small, but likely indicative of wider support — for example, only half of one percent of adult Americans donate more than $200 to political campaigns (although the percentage of total giving is presumably higher, $200 is the smallest amount that can be claimed for tax purposes).
Another of Navalny's anti-corruption-related projects is perhaps a more accurate indicator, since it does not involve contributing money. Last month Navalny sounded a call [ru] for people to sign an online petition [ru] he started on Russia's Public Initiative [GV] website. If the petition, which wants to make it illegal for government officials to buy expensive cars using public funds, reaches 100,000 signatures, the Russian parliament will have to review it. A month later, on May 14, Navalny wrote another post, lamenting the fact that the number of signatures had apparently reached an asymptote at 40,000:
Navalny blamed this on the difficulties involved in signing the petition (users have to register with the government run GosUslugi (State Services) website in order to vote. If they are registered, they have to know their registration number.) Of course, for the purposes of this exercise, a relatively low-effort barrier to entry is a good indicator of what one might call “active” support. In fact, Navalny himself seemed to be of a similar opinion [ru]:
В связи с этим, мне кажется, помочь собрать оставшиеся 60 тысяч голосов нам могут только 40 тысяч уже проголосовавших человек. [...] Вы зарегистрируете свою жену. Или мужа. Или маму с папой. А лучше жену, маму с папой и бабушку. [...] Короче, каждый из проголосовавших должен привести, как минимум, ещё одного человека и провести личную мини-агиткампанию.
In light of this, I think that only the 40 thousand who already voted can help collect the remaining 60 thousand votes. [...] You will register your wife. Or your husband. Or your mom and dad. And even better, your wife, mom and dad, and grandma. [...] To put it simply, each one of those who voted should bring at a minimum one more person, and hold a personal mini-PR-campaign.
To aid in collecting signatures Navalny's team started a website [ru] which tracks the votes and provides several easy to follow FAQs on what the petition is hoping to achieve, and how to register to vote. A week later, the campaign has added another 8,000 votes, breaking the 50,000 barrier, but appears to be suffering from the same loss of interest as before:
It seems safe to say, then, that Alexey Navalny's active supporters number somewhere in the 40 to 50 thousand range. This estimate is particularly convincing when compared to the number of people who voted for him in the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition elections last fall. There, participants were also faced with a somewhat daunting, but ultimately painless, registration process. The final tally for Navalny was 43,723 votes [ru].