Russia bars Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny from running for president

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaking after a hearing in a court in Moscow on June 12, 2017.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaking after a hearing in a court in Moscow on June 12, 2017.PHOTO: AFP
Russia's central election commission voted on Monday to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running in a presidential election next year, saying he was ineligible because of a past criminal conviction.

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - Russian election officials on Monday (Dec 25) barred the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny from running in next year's presidential election, a widely expected decision that prompted him to call for his supporters to boycott the election and take part in street protests.

Twelve members of the 13-member Central Election Commission voted to bar Navalny from registering as a presidential candidate, citing his suspended prison sentence in a fraud case, a prosecution he has denounced as politically motivated. One member abstained from voting because of a possible conflict of interest.

The decision was not a surprise; election officials had previously said in interviews that he would be ineligible to run. Navalny, 41, was also prepared for the decision, recording his reaction in a video before it was officially announced.

"We won't have an election because Vladimir Putin is horribly afraid, he sees a threat in competing with me," Navalny said in the video. "He gave an instruction to his servants from the Central Electoral Commission to reject my registration."

In the video, Navalny called on his supporters to boycott the election, scheduled for March. He said 84 campaign offices he established across Russia would now be organising an election boycott. He also announced a campaign to monitor the turnout and voting at polling places.

Navalny said the candidates who were officially registered to run were personally selected by President Vladimir Putin. He promised nationwide street protests against the election.

"We will campaign against this fake election and persuade people not to take part in it," Navalny said in the video.

"They don't care whom you will vote for, they just want you to come and sign that you got your ballot sheet and thus recognised this procedure as an election."

On Tuesday, the Kremlin said Navalny’s call for a boycott must be checked to see if it complies with the law – an indication that police action could be taken against him and his supporters.

“The calls for a boycott will require scrupulous study, to see whether or not they comply with the law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

He shrugged off allegations that the presidential polls would be a farce without Navalny, saying: “The fact that one of the would-be candidates is not taking part has no bearing on the election’s legitimacy.”

On Dec 6, Putin officially announced that he would seek a fourth term in office, and he is widely expected to win. But some of his supporters are likely to stay home on Election Day, believing that their candidate is certain to win.

Navalny has built his political career and popularity on exposing corruption among members of Putin's inner circle. He led a number of protest rallies in Moscow and across Russia this year that shook the country's otherwise lethargic political scene. Many young people took part in these rallies.

At the Central Election Commission on Monday, Navalny engaged in a heated debate with Ella A. Pamfilova, who was elected as the commission's chairman in 2016 amid demands for fairness and transparency in elections.

"More than anybody else we would be interested for you to run and demonstrate the result that is adequate to your popularity," Pamfilova told Navalny. "But since there is a criminal conviction," she said, the commission had no choice.

"We just fulfill the law," she said, telling Navalny that "you fool poor youth" with the campaign he is running.

Navalny responded by noting that his criminal conviction had been overruled by the European Court of Human Rights and that the Council of Europe had urged Russia to allow him to run for the presidency.

Sergei A. Medvedev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and a frequent political commentator, wrote in a Facebook post that the decision by Pamfilova and her colleagues would further damage the legitimacy of the Russian political system.

"The process of the system's de-legitimation continues," Medvedev said.

"Elections now look like games of the Night Hockey League, where Putin, in the company of 10 lackeys, scores eight goals," he wrote, referring to the ice hockey games that Putin takes part in with his friends and government officials.

On Friday, Putin took part in one such hockey match in Red Square, scoring five goals.