Putin critic Alexei Navalny nominated to run for president
Criminal conviction means opposition leader needs permission from Kremlin to run
Hundreds of supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Sunday endorsed him for the presidency and prepared to file his nomination with election officials, putting pressure on the Kremlin to allow him to run.
President Vladimir Putin's most formidable foe in all his 18 years in power, Navalny is barred from running because of a criminal conviction that is largely viewed as political retribution. He could run if he gets a special dispensation or if the conviction is cancelled.
Some 800 Navalny supporters on Sunday gathered for a formal endorsement meeting in a giant marquee on the snow-covered riverside in Moscow. The endorsement was observed by election authorities. Navalny's representative is to file the papers with the election commission later on Sunday in the same procedure that Putin, who is also running as an independent, should follow.
Even though Russian law requires a candidate to submit an endorsement from just 500 people before he or she is allowed to collect the one million signatures required to get a place on the ballot, Navalny's supporters put on a show of strength on Sunday. Outdoors endorsement gatherings took place in 19 other cities as well, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg.
Polling agencies show 80 per cent support for Putin, which almost certainly guarantees him a win, but Navalny has managed to galvanize some of Russia's sleepiest regions with a yearlong grassroots campaign.
Although election officials are expected to accept Navalny's filing on Sunday, it's highly unlikely that they will let him on the ballot.
Navalny said on Sunday he is confident he will win if he runs, and called on his supporters to boycott the vote if the authorities refuse to register him.
"We are not going to recognize this election but we're not going to step aside either: there will be an all-Russian strike of voters," he said.
In Moscow, the process to file papers was delayed because the printer being used to generate the paperwork stopped working. While Navalny's staff tried to fix the machine, several hundred people gathered on a central Moscow square to demonstrate support for his nomination.
'Any alternative is good'
Biologist Svetlana Sorokina, 41, said it was important to show the Kremlin "there are many people like us."
Nearby, police officers warned the crowd through loudspeakers they were breaking the law and threatened to disperse the rally. Sorokina said she was "a little bit scared."
"I understand the danger. But I got prepared. I told my parents," she said. "They expect me to call and say everything is OK."
"Any alternative is good. It would be better if Putin was to be replaced by anyone," Komendant said.
A lawyer by training, Navalny came to public prominence in 2009, when he began publishing investigations of corruption at Russia's biggest state-controlled companies. He spearheaded massive anti-government protests in 2011-12 in reaction to widespread fraud during the parliamentary election.
Navalny came under pressure from authorities as he gained popularity. He faced countless detentions and jailings for staging protests and spent months under house arrest while being investigated for fraud. He was convicted on two sets of unrelated fraud charges. His brother was sent to prison in what was seen as political revenge.
In his only formal election campaign, he got nearly 30 per cent of the vote when he ran for Moscow mayor in 2013.