TWO leading politicians delivered their new year’s greetings to the Russian public this week. One was the president, Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for 18 years and is planning to stay for at least another six following an election due in March. The other was Alexei Navalny (pictured), the only truly independent opposition leader. He is also the person who poses the biggest challenge to Mr Putin, and has consequently been barred from standing. Both men were speaking using the Kremlin as a backdrop; but in Mr Navalny’s case, it was drawn on a board.

The latter image carried a message: the upcoming election, in which only candidates approved by the Kremlin will be allowed to run, is a cartoon; and genuine politics are unfolding outside the castle’s walls and beyond its control. As part of this process Mr Navalny has called for a nationwide strike on January 28th to launch a boycott of the poll.

Neither Mr Navalny’s ban, announced on December 25th, nor his call for a boycott came as much of a surprise. Ever since he galvanised huge street protests in Moscow against rigging in the legislative elections of 2011, the Kremlin has sought to neutralise the threat he poses by engineering fraud charges against him and slapping him with a criminal conviction to disqualify him from running for the presidency. Mr Navalny has successfully appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, though the court has no power to enforce its judgment. He has also staged an election campaign that has drawn large crowds across the country, despite being interrupted a few times by the detentions of Mr Navalny himself and of his campaign chief.

But just as Mr Navalny refuses to recognise Mr Putin as an irreplaceable leader, Mr Putin conspicuously refuses to acknowledge Mr Navalny as a legitimate challenger. He pretends not to notice him and avoids mentioning him by name. When Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal-minded TV journalist and presidential candidate, asked Mr Putin why Mr Navalny was excluded from the ballot, Mr Putin said he would not allow “the figures you mentioned” to “destabilise our country”.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and a former adviser to Mr Putin, says that Mr Navalny has already seized the political initiative. Although the Kremlin can keep him off the ballot paper, it cannot keep him away from street politics, unless it decides to arrest him yet again. Far from neutralising Mr Navalny as a threat, the ban and the ensuing boycott may have made him even more dangerous. For all of Mr Putin’s authoritarianism, he still relies on the consent of the public and of Russia’s various elites, and derives what legitimacy he has from popular support. The election is meant to be a way of demonstrating to the elite that the public still recognise him as their only possible leader.

Although Mr Putin’s victory in March is assured, the success of the election is not. The purpose of Mr Navalny’s efforts, which include the boycott, agitation against the election and the monitoring of its results, is to present the whole procedure as a flop, to minimise the turnout and to expose any attempts to rig it. “The aim of our strike is to cause maximum political damage to Putin, his party and his cronies,” Mr Navalny told his supporters in another recent broadcast. Backed by 200,000 volunteers across Russia, he hopes to create a widespread public perception that the election is a fraud.

Ms Sobchak, who says she is campaigning “against everyone”, dismisses Mr Navalny’s tactics, arguing that the system is too powerful to be tackled head on and can only be changed from within—which is what she says she is trying to achieve. Mr Navalny’s plans, however, reflect his conviction that Russia has passed the point when power can change as a result of an orderly election. The irony is that by barring him, Mr Putin has tended to confirm this analysis.