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Russian Presidential Hopeful Slams Kremlin On Syria, Ukraine

Aleksei Navalny said that Russia should be battling Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria as part of a U.S.-led coalition rather than helping President Bashar al-Assad's forces retake territory from rebels in a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

Russia is fighting on the wrong side in Syria and has turned close neighbor Ukraine into a "hostile state" through its aggression, Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny has said in an interview.

Navalny, an anticorruption crusader and opposition leader who announced last week that he plans to run for president in 2018, spoke to RFE/RL's Russian Service on December 20.

He said that Russia should be battling Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria as part of a U.S.-led coalition rather than helping President Bashar al-Assad's forces retake territory from rebels in a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

Russia should not "try to save Assad, who represents a military junta," Navalny said. He said that getting involved in the war on the same side as Shi'ite-dominated Iran and Hizballah, the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group fighting alongside Syrian government forces, stokes anger among members of Russia's mostly Sunni Muslim minority.

"That is exactly why people from the North Caucasus go to Syria in droves to fight along their Sunni brothers against Shi'a," Navalny said, referring to the part of southern Russia that includes mostly Muslim regions such as Chechnya and Daghestan.

"That, I think, was the reason for the fanatic who committed that terrorist act yesterday," Navalny added, speaking of the fatal shooting of the Russian ambassador to Turkey on December 19 by a gunman -- identified by the Turkish authorities as an off-duty policeman -- who shouted, "Don't forget Aleppo!"

Russian military support has helped Assad's forces take most of eastern Aleppo from rebels in recent months in a persistent campaign that has led to accusations of atrocities and war crimes.

Navalny said that comments on social networks from some Ukrainians about the killing of the ambassador underscored the level of animosity in that county toward Russia, which seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and has backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 9,750 people in eastern Ukraine since that April.

"We just see that with our own hands we have created a hostile state where...people hate Russia en masse," Navalny said. He said that "a couple of generations" will have to pass before ties with "the culturally and linguistically" close neighbor can return to normal.

Navalny also said that to make sure that no Russian troops are on Ukrainian territory, Russia must fully implement the Minsk agreements on resolution of the conflict in Ukraine's east, where Russia-backed separatists control some districts.

If elected, he said, he would initiate "a normal referendum" in Crimea to legally define the status of the peninsula.

Russia seized control of Crimea in March 2014 after flooding the peninsula with troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and a total of 100 UN member states.

Domestic Focus

Navalny, 40, could face an uphill battle just to get on the ballot in the 2018 election, in which Putin is widely expected to seek a new six-year term but has not announced his candidacy.

Navalny will need to clear hurdles that Kremlin critics say have been used extensively in the past to block opposition politicians from challenging Putin. He has been convicted of financial crimes twice in trials he says were Kremlin-dictated revenge for his opposition activities, though a Supreme Court decision to throw out one of the convictions removed a legal restraint that had barred him from running for office.

If he is convicted in the retrial, which is under way, he could be barred from the ballot.

While he spoke about Syria and Ukraine in the wide-ranging interview, Navalny said that as president, he would focus much of his attention on pressing domestic concerns.

Among other things, he said he would free political prisoners, pursue judicial reforms to make the courts independent, and take steps to ensure oligarchs and business giants do not control the media.

Navalny also said he would hold a new election to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, contending that the September vote that elected the current Duma was rigged in favor of the ruling United Russia party.

Navalny was a key leader of large street protests that erupted in Moscow over claims of widespread fraud in the December 2011 Duma elections and Putin's plan to return to the Kremlin in 2012 after a stint as prime minister.

He said he would bring back the four-year presidential term to prevent future presidents from being "being spoiled by power" in six-year terms, reversing a change made in 2008.

Navalny predicted that recent and upcoming elections in the United States and European Union countries will have little long-term effect on their relations with Russia, in part because election cycles mean leaders in the West can frequently be replaced.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has said he will seek to improve ties with Russia, which are badly strained by Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria, among other things.

But Navalny said that "Trump is supported by Republicans and Republicans are very belligerent on [Russia-related] issues."

Written by Merhat Sharipzhan based on an interview by RFE/RL's Russian Service