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Thousands Rally for Kremlin Critic Alexei Navalny's Presidential Candidacy

24 Dec 2017 3:55 pm
By Thomas Grove 

MOSCOW--Thousands of supporters of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny gathered across the country Sunday to back his independent bid to challenge President Vladimir Putin in next year's election.

Despite having been declared ineligible to run by election officials in the March 2018 vote, Mr. Navalny has chosen to leverage his street-level support among Russia's opposition to challenge the tightly run electoral system.

At a rally in Moscow, Mr. Navalny addressed Mr. Putin, blaming him for the country's economic woes: "You are a bad president...We are challenging you in this election and we intend to win."

The show of support by thousands in Moscow, St. Petersburg and 18 of Russia's other biggest cities marked a bid by the 41-year-old Mr. Navalny to clear the first procedural step needed to run as a candidate in the election.

If he did run, Mr. Navalny would likely stand little chance against Mr. Putin, who is seeking a fourth term as president next year. Besides a four-year stint as prime minister between 2008 and 2012, Mr. Putin has been Russia's president since 2000.

Nonetheless, Mr. Putin refuses to mention Mr. Navalny by name.

The charismatic opposition politician, who ran unsuccessfully for Moscow mayor in 2013, has gained popularity for exposing corruption among those in the government and Mr. Putin's inner circle, which the Kremlin has denied.

Pro-Kremlin commentators have tried to skewer Mr. Navalny, often dismissing his supporter base for being young.

Russia's Central Election Committee has said previously that Mr. Navalny is ineligible for office because of a criminal conviction he says is politically motivated. Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny said he planned to hand in the papers to register his candidacy on Sunday.

"Just try to not let us run in the elections," he told a crowd of more than 700 supporters invited to gather in a makeshift campaign tent in a park on the outskirts of Moscow. "We will call a strike."

Under Russian law, a candidate needs the support of 500 people gathered in one place in order to run.

In contrast to the staid political performances of Mr. Putin and other parties that have put candidates forward, Mr. Navalny was met with exuberance, with confetti showering the stage where he stood with his family.

A day earlier, Mr. Putin delivered one of his first campaign addresses in Moscow in front of Kremlin-loyal United Russia party members, expressing consternation over poverty and corruption in the country.

But on Sunday, Mr. Navalny laid those problems at the feet of the president.

"You, Vladimir Putin, have turned our country into a source of enrichment for you and your family and your friends."

The Navalny campaign team has worked to open up dozens of new headquarters across Russia and has published a full program that strikes at the heart of Russia's chronic problems like corruption, crumbling infrastructure and social services.

A fiery orator, Mr. Navalny gained recognition among the opposition for his speeches during a 2011-12 movement that involved regular protests in Moscow and other cities against Mr. Putin's rule.

The opposition has largely fractured since, though most opposition forces have rallied around Mr. Navalny. Russian journalist and socialite Ksenia Sobchak has also declared her candidacy in opposition to Kremlin policies.

"Power has to change hands and we have to show the authorities we're not afraid," said Veronica Bykadarova, a 20-year-old who was among those gathered in central Moscow to show their support for Mr. Navalny. "We'll be back if Navalny isn't allowed to run."

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 24, 2017 10:55 ET (15:55 GMT)

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