Now cleared of embezzlement charges, prominent Russian anti-corruption activist, blogger, and “non-systemic” opposition leader Alexei Navalny announced his intention to run for president in 2018 on his campaign website.
Despite Kremlin disdain for the activist, his candidacy will come as a useful injection of legitimacy amid Vladimir Putin’s likely re-election for a fourth term.
“The presidential elections should prompt a discussion about the development of the country,” said 40-year-old Navalny. “We need an honest conversation, rather than yet another fake television show. I am ready to prove in a live debate that my manifesto is better than that of my rivals.”
Running under the slogan of “Time to choose”, he is the first candidate to openly announce his intention to run, as Putin, currently in his third non-successive presidential term and regarded as invincible in the polls, has not yet made his plans for 2018 clear.
The 2018.Navalny.com home page reminds that last time the activist ran for office in Moscow's mayoral elections in 2013 he gained 27% of the votes, more than all other opposition candidates combined.
While Navalny in recent years embarrassed and angered the Russian political elite with leaked revelations about their earnings and abuses of power, his candidacy actually now serves the Kremlin’s agenda well, allowing it to counter claims of a meaningless one-horse race.
It is therefore unlikely to be a coincidence that in a ruling by the Russian Supreme Court in November, Navalny had embezzlement charges against him in the notorious Kirovles case scrapped. He has been barred from holding public office since being found guilty of stealing timber from the state-owned company Kirovles in the city of Kirov in 2013.
Navalny was given a suspended five-year sentence while his brother Oleg was sent to more than three years in prison, which was broadly condemned as a brutal tactic of silencing opposition by holding relatives hostage.
Prior to the quashing of the charges, Navalny was barred from holding office and couldn’t register for September’s parliamentary elections. Now many observers see his restored eligibility as creating a useful vein of genuine opposition for what should be a shoo-in for 64-year-old former KGB agent Putin.
Putin’s popularity rating currently stands at a near record of 84%, and Forbes magazine just named him the world’s most powerful man for the fourth year running. According to a November poll by the Levada Center, two thirds (63%) of Russians still want to see Putin elected president in 2018, with those against this dropping from 40% four years ago to 19%. Only 26% of respondents believe that another leader able to replace Putin will emerge by 2018, versus 49% in 2012.
But even just a month ago, the Kremlin feigned complete disinterest in Navalny’s plans for 2018. “We are not interested in the matter so we don’t have an opinion,” Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on November 16. “The presidential election is still a long way off”, and “this issue is not on our agenda”, he added.
Meanwhile, Navalny is running on a social left-leaning platform calling for the redistribution of oligarch wealth through a one-time tax, a crackdown on corruption, doubling healthcare and education spending, judicial reform, and “ceasing spending money on wars in Ukraine and Syria”.
However, barriers for his entry into the presidential race remain plentiful: Navalny has to collect 0.3mn signatures to support his candidacy, which his web platform is already effectively preparing by online registration.
Vedomosti daily notes that the fact that Navalny’s team is gathering this amount of signatures means he will run as an independent candidate, as candidates of regional parties only need 0.1mn signatures to register.
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