Alexei Navalny, who has emerged as Russian president Vladimir Putin's most formidable political foe, has challenged him again, in spite of Putin's ruthless drive to crush political dissent in the country.
In an interview published in the Financial Times, Navalny has said he is determined to contest the Russian presidential polls due early next year, in spite of being convicted in a fraud case.
Navalny dared Putin after a court in Russia on February 9 revived an old sentence convicting him for embezzlement. The court, although it sentenced him with a suspended prison term of five years, dealt a legal blow to his chances for running for president as Russian law doesn't allow a person convicted under criminal charges to run for any elected office.
The court verdict was seen as a motivated step taken under Kremlin pressure to remove the only credible name from the Russian presidential race who could challenge Putin, and as expected, was widely panned by the international community.
Navalny is probably the most widely known Russian politician globally after Putin. He has established himself as the rival pole of Russian politics in an atmosphere where political dissent is not allowed and the existing political and electoral systems are there only to act as dummies.
Navalny has denied all charges and even the European Court of Human Rights had found the earlier trial in the case unfair. Navalny plans to build pressure that can force the Kremlin to allow him for the presidential polls.
The Financial Times report says, quoting him: "We will try to grow support in society until the Kremlin understands that it is necessary to admit me to the elections and the consequences of not admitting me will be even worse.”
|Alexei Navalny is probably the most widely known Russian politician globally after Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Reuters)|
It is a strategy that Navalny had adopted during the Moscow mayoral polls in July 2013. Then a guilty conviction for embezzlement had banned him from the mayoral polls. By then, Navalny had emerged as the foremost anti-Putin voice in Russia with an image of a political reformer and anti-corruption crusader and millions were hooked to his blog posts.
He led the Russian protests in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, mobilising masses for "Russia without Putin" protest rallies. Protests were organised in many parts of Russia against the continued rule of Putin since 1999 but Putin effectively crushed every dissent after he won the Kremlin again in March 2012.
After protests in Navalny's support, the court allowed him to run for the polls pending his appeal. It was then seen as done under the Kremlin's pressure to gauge public mood. Though Putin's man won the polls, Navalny got over 27 per cent votes. In Russia's electoral history of rigged polls, it was a jolt for Putin as Navalny had no access to media outlets and had no funding.
Navalny once again wants to mobilise public sentiment to build pressure on the Kremlin to the extent that it forces Putin to allow him to run in the polls, even if in the name of giving the electoral process some legitimacy.
Navalny is going to open his offices in all big Russian cities within some months. He already has thousands of volunteers to work for his campaign and is expecting a mass-level mobilisation soon and its subsequent repercussion. “By the time we open our 10th campaign office, the level of pushback [from the authorities] will become clear,” he says in the Financial Times report.
But what happened with the Moscow mayoral polls in 2013 will make Putin and the Kremlin take a tough approach on Navalny's demands. It was a small bet then.
Putin would not like to take that risk when it comes to the presidential bid that would give him Russia again for another six years, completing a silver jubilee for his unbridled rule, from 1999 to 2024.