Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has followed his declaration of intent to run in Russia’s next presidential election by saying one of his top priorities if elected would be to implement the Minsk accords aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine.
Speaking to Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL and VOA, on December 15, Navalny said that "the first measure that we must carry out is implementation of the Minsk accords."
Those accords -- agreed among Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany in the Belarusian capital in February 2015 -- called for elections, a return of border control, and other measures to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,700 people as Kyiv battles Russia-backed separatists.
"Putin himself talks about this endlessly but does practically nothing about it," Navalny said. "The Minsk accords were signed by Russia, they need to be fulfilled, and that would be the first step to resolving the situation with Ukraine."
The United States, European Union, and allies responded to Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine with economic sanctions and other punitive measures.
The Minsk accords call for pulling out all foreign armed groups from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, withdrawing heavy weaponry, returning control of Ukraine's border to Kyiv, and ensuring local elections in parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are held by Russian-backed separatists.
Russia's next presidential election is scheduled for March 2018, although there has been speculation lately that Putin might move that forward to 2017.
Navalny, who announced on December 13 he would run for president but has not yet officially registered for the as-yet unscheduled election, also said he would seek a "fair" referendum in Crimea so that the inhabitants of Ukraine's Russian-annexed peninsula can choose if they want to be with Ukraine or Russia.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after covertly flooding the peninsula with troops to secure key facilities, taking control of the regional legislature, and staging a referendum on annexation that was denounced as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and the UN General Assembly.
Navalny has frequently tread a cautious line on topics that resonate particularly in nationalist circles, including migration and the possible return of Crimea, whose Soviet-era handover to Ukraine is seen as illegitimate by many Russians. In October 2014, Navalny vowed that Crimea "will remain part of Russia and will never again in the foreseeable future become part of Ukraine."
In the wide-ranging interview with Current Time, Navalny said another of his priorities if elected would be to assure that money hidden abroad by oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin is returned to the country. He said he has confidence that foreign states would cooperate with any efforts to recover such funds.
"If the position of Russia itself will be such that we request that money stolen from Russian citizens be returned, it will be returned for the most part," he said.
Navalny, who rose to prominence as an anticorruption blogger before entering politics, operates the Anticorruption Foundation (FBK) in Moscow. He said upon announcing his election bid on December 13 that he wants to be the voice of "those tens of millions of people who work honestly, raise children, pay taxes, love their country but whose voice the authorities do not hear" and who are "ignored, robbed, deprived of the dignified life they deserve." He has said money returned to the country would be channeled toward hospitals and education.
Putin served two presidential terms before stepping aside for four years, then returning for a third term in 2012.
Navalny, 40, faces an uphill battle to get on the ballot for a presidential race in which it is still unclear whether Putin would run again for office or step aside in favor of a Kremlin insider.
Russian authorities have thrown numerous impediments in Navalny’s way as he has emerged as one of the country’s most active opposition figures, with a proven ability to bring out tens of thousands of voters.
Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, finishing second with more than 27 percent of the vote. Ahead of the election, the Kremlin sought to discredit him with embezzlement charges, saying he used his position as an unpaid consultant to the governor of Russia’s Kirov region to try to steal timber from the state-run forestry company. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison but after a protest by supporters in Moscow, was released without explanation.
As Navalny now prepares to run for the presidency, he faces the likelihood that the Kremlin will again seek to tar him with criminal charges. A retrial of the alleged embezzlement case is now under way in Kirov, east of Moscow, and earlier this month the Russian state prosecutor's office demanded that Navalny’s FBK publish information on its sources of funding.
The state prosecutor’s demand raises the possibility that Navalny’s foundation will be charged with receiving foreign funding -- a punishable offense under Russia’s controversial foreign agents law. The FBK’s says all of its financing is through donations by Russian citizens.
Speaking to Current Time, Navalny said he would also seek to finance his upcoming run for the presidency through citizens’ contributions.
"The first two days of fund-raising, which we are doing through small donations, showed us that we most likely will be able to finance a full-fledged election campaign based precisely upon small individual contributions," he said.
He estimated he would need a budget of some 1 billion rubles ($16 million) for campaigning but did not provide details regarding his campaign strategy.
Asked if he feared that trying to collect funds across Russia in his presidential bid could make him an easy target for new Kremlin charges of financial misdoing, Navalny said he refused to be deterred by such possibilities.
"If we live and make plans while taking into account what kind of accusations they can trump up against us, we will not be able to do anything at all," he said.