The Kremlin has rejected concerns that Moscow's decision to bar opposition leader Aleksei Navalny from running against President Vladimir Putin undermines the legitimacy of Russia's presidential election.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's dismissal came late on December 26 after the European Union foreign policy chief’s spokeswoman said a December 25 decision by Russia's Central Election Commission to bar Navalny "casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and the prospect of democratic elections next year."
"We cannot agree with this point of view," Peskov said. "The fact that one of the would-be candidates is not taking part has no bearing on the election's legitimacy."
Peskov added that Navalny's call on supporters to boycott the March election in light of the commission's decision "should be carefully studied to see if they are breaking the law."
Russian law doesn't specifically prohibit someone from calling for an election boycott, the Associated Press reported, but Russian authorities last year blocked access to several websites that did call for a boycott.
Maja Kocinjancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said the election commission's exclusion of Navalny because of a past criminal conviction on embezzlement charges was unfair and wrong.
Navalny has repeatedly described the charges against him as politically motivated.
Navalny “has been judged by the European Court of Human Rights to have been denied the right to a fair trial in his prosecution in 2013,” Kocinjancic said.
“Politically motivated charges should not be used against political participation,” she said.
"We expect the Russian authorities to ensure that there is a level playing field, including in the presidential elections," she said.
Kocijancic also said that the EU expects Russia to invite election monitors from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"The European Union will base its assessment of the electoral process on their findings, as we have done in the past," Kocijancic said.
A Vote For 'Lies And Corruption'
In a prerecorded video message released minutes after the commission announced its decision on December 25, Navalny called on his supporters to boycott the vote.
"The procedure that we're invited to participate in is not an election," he said. "Only Putin and his hand-picked candidates are taking part in it.
"Going to the polls right now is to vote for lies and corruption.
"We are declaring a strike by voters. We will ask everyone to boycott these elections. We will not recognize the result," Navalny said.
Navalny told journalists after the ruling that he would appeal the decision at Russia's Constitutional Court but that he realized his chances of overturning it were slim.
"Of course, we will appeal it everywhere -- at the Constitutional Court. But we are perfectly aware that it is part of one system," he told journalists.
"It appeared to me that the commission and [its President Ella] Pamfilova personally didn't even try to make it look like their decision was not politically motivated."
Later on December 26, Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs issued an order to printing houses not to print leaflets discrediting the government or calling for unauthorized actions during the presidential election campaign -- prompting a tweet from Navalny.
"Elections have begun," Navalny wrote. "God forbid that some nonsense will be printed."
With reporting by AP, AFP, Meduza, Reuters, and BBC