MOSCOW -- Prominent Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has announced he intends to run for president in an election due in March 2018, potentially setting up a contest against longtime leader Vladimir Putin.
"I am running in the election and I am going to fight for victory," Navalny said in a video statement on December 13 on a new website dedicated to his Kremlin bid. "I am going to discuss the things that everyone is silent about, but have long needed saying."
"Russia should be a rich, free, strong country.... I am going into the election with a program to make Russia strong and modern. To curb corruption. To turn Russia's riches into prosperity for every family," Navalny said on the website.
The firebrand anticorruption campaigner and fierce Kremlin critic is the first politician to announce the intention to run in 2018. Putin, in power as prime minister or president since 1999, is eligible to seek a new six-year term and is widely expected to do so, but has not announced his candidacy.
In his statement, Navalny appeals to voters with promises to combat corruption and battle gaping social inequality that, he says, means 0.1 percent of the population owns 88 percent of the wealth in Russia.
"In this election, I want to be your voice, 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. They are ignored, robbed, deprived of the dignified life they deserve," he says.
Navalny, 40, wore a suit and tie and sat beside a Russian tricolor flag and framed photographs of his family -- a stark change of image from the casual street style that accompanied his rise to prominence as a leader of major antigovernment protests in 2011-12.
Essentially blacklisted from Kremlin-controlled TV networks, Navalny carved out a following online, using social media to harry Putin with a series of detailed reports alleging corruption among high-level Russian officials.
Putin weathered the protests to return to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012, cracking down on the opposition and bolstering his popularity with a conservative pivot at home and confrontation with the West abroad.
"The people in power have been there 17 years," he says. "They have stopped reacting to any criticism. Both the Kremlin and the government are concerned only with the resolution of their own financial issues. Therefore, they do not tolerate any criticism and they forbid it."
Navalny posted his campaign platform online, calling for an end to international "isolationism" and for money lost to corruption or spent on military action abroad -- a reference to Russia’s involvement in wars in Syria and Ukraine -- to be channeled toward hospitals and education.
He also proposed devolving political power from Moscow to the regions, which would reverse a key policy underpinning Putin’s centralized grip on power, and allowing taxes to be gathered and spent by local regional authorities.
Reinforcing a nationalist and populist streak that irks some in the liberal opposition, Navalny also called for a visa regime to be imposed on migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia who travel to Russia in the hundreds of thousands for work.
Navalny could face an uphill battle just to get on the ballot, needing to clear bureaucratic hurdles that Kremlin critics say have been used extensively in the past to block opposition politicians from challenging Putin and the dominant, Kremlin-controlled United Russia party.
He has been convicted of financial crimes twice in trials he says were Kremlin-dictated revenge for his opposition activities, but the Supreme Court in November threw out the verdict in one of the cases, removing a legal restraint that had barred him from running for office.
If Navalny is convicted in the retrial now under way in Kirov, a provincial city east of Moscow, he would probably be prohibited from running in 2018.
Vladimir Solovey, a political analyst, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Navalny's announcement serves a secondary tactical function as it makes it politically harder for the authorities to use the courts to bar him from the presidential ballot.
"He is showing [the Kremlin] and the world that the trial against him is exclusively political and politically motivated," Solovey said.
Most observers believe that Putin will ultimately decide whether to let Navalny get on the ballot. If he does, the Kremlin has many levers to try to turn voters against him, from the state TV networks that dominate the media and United Russia's strong influence nationwide.
Kremlin critics including Navalny say that elections held since Putin was first elected in 2000 have been marred by fraud employed to benefit the president and his allies.
Navalny challenged the Kremlin-backed incumbent in a Moscow mayoral election in 2013, coming in second with more than 27 percent of the vote.