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Putin critic vows to seek presidency

Navalny is called most vocal critic of the Kremlin

Sergev Brovko/AFP/Getty Images

By Ivan Nechepurenko New York Times 

MOSCOW — Alexei Navalny, the most vocal critic of the Kremlin, announced on Tuesday his intention to run for president of Russia, though he is facing a court trial that could make him ineligible to participate in the campaign.

“There have been no true elections in Russia since 1996, and this is one of the reasons of our plight,” Navalny said in a video statement, posted on his new campaign website. “I will participate in the election, and I will fight for victory.”

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Apart from Navalny, only Grigory A. Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal party Yabloko, has declared his intention to run for the post. President Vladimir Putin has deflected questions about his own candidacy, saying it is too early to talk about it. But he is widely expected to run and, in light of his soaring approval ratings and control over the media, is expected to win.

The vote is scheduled to take place in March 2018.

A lawyer by training, Navalny, 40, emerged as Russia’s most prominent opposition politician on the wave of public protests that followed parliamentary elections in 2011, seen by many as flawed.

But as Navalny’s popularity was surging, Russian investigators got busy, filing a number of criminal cases that rights advocates have dismissed as politically motivated. In 2013, a court in the provincial Russian town of Kirov convicted Navalny on charges of embezzling timber worth $500,000 from a state-owned company and sentenced him to five years in prison.

The sentence was later suspended but the criminal conviction barred Navalny from running for office — the outcome that Navalny and others say was the government’s goal from the beginning.

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In the meantime, Navalny garnered 27 percent of the vote in a race for mayor of Moscow, a better result than any other open critic of the Kremlin since Putin assumed office in 1999. That Navalny was even allowed to run was seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to make the election look more legitimate.

In November, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned Navalny’s criminal conviction after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in February that Russian courts had violated his right to a fair trial. While Navalny is free for the moment to campaign, the criminal case will be retried by a court in Kirov.

Over the years, Navalny has repeatedly accused Putin and members of his inner circle of rampant corruption and has been tolerated as long as he does not seem to pose a serious threat.

In his statement, Navalny promised to raise the issue of official corruption during the campaign.

“The Kremlin and the government are only worried about solving their own financial issues,” Navalny said in the video. “I will discuss what everybody is silent about, but what has to be said for a long time.”