Though Vladimir Putin's presidential re-election in March will make international headlines, the greatest achievement of the election cycle will be the giant strides that Russian society has taken despite the government's attempts to squash any form of dissent.
With a number of new candidates running in the election, the discourse is beginning to change. There is a renewed focus on an improved domestic agenda and a serious conversation about issues of patronage that perpetuate a system benefiting only the wealthy few.
It's not for nothing that Alexei Navalny's rallies draw thousands of people all around the country. People want to hear from Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and lawyer, who was the most serious Putin challenger in the upcoming elections until he was barred from running because of a corruption conviction in a fraud case. Navalny's critics believe this was a politically motivated conviction -- and Navalny has vowed to appeal.
Though Navalny is perhaps Putin's best-known opposition -- and likely the one the Kremlin views as most threatening, there are a number of Putin critics running in the next election, and they are making their voices known. Consider the case of Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader of the liberal Yabloko Party and another presidential candidate in the upcoming election. He was barred from running in Russia's 2012 presidential election, despite collecting 2 million signatures for his nomination.
And yet Yavlinksy recently appeared on Kremlin-controlled federal TV channels -- NTV and Russia-1 -- for the first time in years, and he didn't talk about American unemployment, the "Kiev junta," Russian's ban from the Olympic Games or the World Cup draw. Instead, he spoke about Russia's economic and social policies, the need for change and how to tackle poverty and corruption in Moscow.
And then there was a recent episode of "Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov" -- among the top 10 television shows on Russia-1. Solovyov, host of the popular daily political debate show, is known as a Kremlin propagandist and aggressive polemicist. Despite his reputation, he interviewed Ksenia Sobchak, 36, who is also running for president in the upcoming election and sees herself not just as an opponent to Putin, but as "against all" candidate (this is her campaign slogan). On his show, Sobchak, to whom I am an adviser, advocated for voting against a "politics as usual" system and disrupting the status quo.
Just imagine it: A seasoned opposition politician (Yavlinksky) and Russia's youngest presidential candidate (Sobchak) were given chances to speak freely on Kremlin-owned state television about Russia's internal problems and their ideas for how to fix entrenched systems of corruption.
Kremlin airwaves did not always give such access to opposition candidates. Just two years ago, during the 2016 State Duma (lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly) campaign, opposition candidates were given barely two minutes of TV time on Moscow local television to introduce their agenda and their campaign.
Today, political candidates' appearances form a more regular part of the TV schedule, and they have the freedom to say quite a lot. Just consider that in the same prime time interview, Sobchak claimed that Crimea "belong[ed] to Ukraine" -- a remark which the Kremlin could have penalized harshly just a few years back.
So why is the Kremlin granting freedom of speech to opposition candidates on state-owned channels, which reach nearly the entire population? Perhaps the administration finally understands that while it's possible to keep Navalny out of the presidential election, the forces that gave rise to him can no longer be ignored. Systemic inequality, rampant patronage in the Kremlin and a sluggish economy are no longer acceptable.
Or, perhaps the Kremlin may be afraid of lower voter turnout -- an indication of voter apathy and a decreasing legitimacy in the government. By allowing the semblance of increased competition, the Kremlin may be hoping to engage more voters -- and get higher voter turnout on Election Day.
Meanwhile, Putin is trying to portray to the international community that Russia isn't the oligarchy it is frequently accused of being. Granting TV access to the opposition candidates might be Putin's strategy to show that Russia is a democracy that allows for opposition voices and grants them freedom of speech.
And perhaps the Kremlin is willing to grant this kind of freedom because he does not believe any of the opposition candidates are serious opponents at the polls. But it would be wrong to make such an assumption. Putin may very well win in March, but with a sluggish economy, rampant unemployment and a growing sense of frustration with politics as usual, the future does not look nearly as rosy as the Kremlin would like to delude itself into thinking.