Putin’s Main Challenger Navalny Barred from 2018 Presidential Vote over Court Sentence

Vladimir Putin - Feb 2017. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov/POOL/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Charismatic liberal whistleblower Alexei Navalny, who could have been Vladimir Putin’s main rival in Russia’s 2018 Presidential Elections, has in effect been barred from running after being found guilty in a long-running embezzlement case.

Navalny, who in December 2016 announced his intention to run for Russia’s Presidency in 2018, becoming the first politician to do so, has received a five-year suspended sentence from a court in the Russian city of Kirov, 900 east of Moscow, in what has become as the “Kirovles Case”, Russian news site Meduza reported.

‘Timber Embezzlement’ Case

The Kirovles Case has dragged on since 2012 when Navalny and another co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, were indicted. It concerns “Kirovles”, a state-owned timber company in Kirov. According to the prosecution, in 2009, while acting as an unpaid adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, Navalny and Ofitserov conspired to steal timber thus embezzling about RUB 16 million (app. USD 270,000).

Both men were found guilty in 2013, and Navalny was given 5 years in prison. However, the same day, the Prosecutor’s Office appealed the sentence it had requested leading it to be postponed pending appeal, and to the two men’s release.

In February 2016, the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France, a judicial body of the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization of which Russia is a member, ruled that Navalny had been refused a fair trial, and ordered the Russian government to pay him EUR 55,000 in damages. As a result, in November 2016, Russia’s Supreme Court sent the Kirovles Case back to the court in Kirov for retrial.

On Wednesday, February 8, however, the court in Kirov found Navalny and Ofitserov guilty of the same charges as in 2013, giving the first a five-year suspended sentence, and the second a four-year suspended sentence. They were also fined RUB 500,000 (app. USD 8,500) each.

“The defendants were involved in the embezzlement of the Kirovles company’s funds,” judge Alexei Vtyurin declared at the court hearing in Kirov, as cited by Russian state news agency TASS.

Before the hearing, Navalny had made it clear he expected to be sent to prison, and arrived in court with a backpack of personal belongings, accompanied by his wife and lawyers.

Still Running

Upon learning the verdict, Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mihaylova said it would disqualify him from participating in Russia’s 2018 Presidential Elections since it effectively stripped him of the right to run for electoral office.

The 40-year-old opposition leader, however, promised to run for President of the Russian Federation in 2018 nonetheless, making clear his plan to get the sentence annulled because, in his words, it contradicted the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.

“We don’t recognize this verdict, and it will be overturned,” Navalny said after the verdict. “We will go on campaigning regardless of this verdict.”

Navalny argued that the ruling of the court in Kirov was politically motivated, and solely designed to prevent him from challenging Vladimir Putin for the Russian Presidency in 2018.

What is more, he was convinced that his sentencing revealed the Kremlin’s concern that he could be too popular, and therefore too dangerous to be allowed to run.

“Just as before, they are afraid of let us in the elections. And it’s not like they are trying very hard to conceal this. The ruling coincided with the previous [2013] one to the last letter. It was 100% “copy-paste”,” the whistleblower wrote in a brief post on his popular website, Navalny.com.

“We, just as before, we believe we have the right to fight for the better future of our country,” he concluded.

It is not 100% certain that Wednesday’s sentence definitively blocks Navalny’s presidential candidacy, ABC News reported, stressing that while Navalny’s appeal would probably be unsuccessful, his campaign manager Leonid Volkov alleged that Russia’s legislation was contradictory on whether a convicted person may run for office. In his words, the Russian constitution permits it, while the electoral legislation forbids it explicitly.

Whistleblower vs. Putin

Navalny has already faced several other criminal cases in Russia, and he has also been arrested over his participation in street protests, and on defamation charges resulting from anti-corruption campaign. His brother Oleg, who is not involved in politics, is serving a 3.5-year sentence in a separate case which, Navalny claimed, was also politically motivated, and directed against him.

A popular anti-corruption blogger, Alexei Navalny truly rose to prominence in 2011-2013, during large-scale protest rallies in Moscow against the Putin-Medvedev regime.

In 2013, Navalny ran for Mayor of Moscow against incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, or, as critics of the Putin Presidency commented at the time, “was allowed to run” in order to legitimize the Kremlin’s candidate. The whistleblower, whose campaign was largely based on social media activism, remained second with 27% of the votes.

Even if he eventually manages, or “is allowed” to make a run for the Russian Presidency in 2018, Navalny is hardly expected to stand a chance of winning. While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has not officially announced his plan to run yet, it is widely believed that he intends to do so. He enjoys great popularity, and government and media control would give him a clear edge.

Vladimir Putin first rose to the Russian Presidency in 2000, served for two four-year terms, before switching with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, and then switching back in 2012, but this time for a six-year term.

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