By Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov, AP
MOSCOW — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was convicted Wednesday in a retrial of a 2013 fraud case and given a suspended sentence, a ruling that bars him from running for president next year and appears to reflect the Kremlin’s reluctance to let President Vladimir Putin’s most charismatic foe into the field.
Navalny vowed to keep campaigning while he appeals.
“What we have just seen is a telegram of sorts from the Kremlin, saying that they consider me, my team and people whose views I represent too dangerous to be allowed into the election campaign,” he said. “We do not recognize this verdict, it will be overturned, and … I have the right to run in the election.”
Navalny was the driving force behind massive protests of Putin’s rule in 2011-2012 in Moscow, electrifying crowds with chants of “We are the power!” and saying at one point that the protesters were numerous enough to take the Kremlin.
Even after the protests fizzled amid the Kremlin crackdown, Navalny came in a strong second in Moscow’s mayoral election in 2013, with 27 percent of the vote.
Shortly before that vote, Navalny was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but was freed the next morning and allowed to run pending appeal. The abrupt about-face was widely seen as the result of lobbying by those in the government who believed that Navalny’s participation would help legitimize the incumbent’s victory.
The 2013 guilty verdict in the fraud case was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s right to a fair trial, prompting the Russian Supreme Court to order of a retrial. It sparked speculation that the Kremlin was considering the same tactic in the 2018 presidential race, letting Navalny compete to help revive public interest in the vote and boost turnout without any real threat to Putin.
The president hasn’t said yet whether he will seek another six-year term, but he’s widely expected to run.
If Navalny is allowed to run, he would be unlikely to unseat Putin, who has remained widely popular with approval ratings topping 80 percent. The Kremlin, however, might have thought that letting Navalny enter the race would be too risky, given his charisma and the plummeting economy.
Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst, said the verdict has proven the government’s intention to keep Navalny from running.