MOSCOW -- Russian anticorruption activist and opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has submitted documents needed to be registered as a presidential candidate to the country’s Central Election Commission.
"An election without us is not an election," Navalny declared before submitting the papers late on December 24.
"We are capable of opposing the current authorities. Our key demand is to be allowed to take part in the elections," he told reporters as he was leaving the commission building in central Moscow.
An outspoken Kremlin critic, Navalny is barred from running in the March 2018 presidential election because of a criminal conviction that he says is politically motivated. Navalny could run if the conviction is canceled or if he gets a special dispensation.
The commission, which extended its working hours to take the documents, has five days in which to decide whether Navalny will be registered.
Navalny tweeted on December 25 that election officials have already been meeting to decide on his election bid.
“Judging by the unprecedented speed (yesterday the documents were submitted at 2100, and there is already a CEC meeting… at 1500), they are going to deny us registration,” Navalny wrote.
The election commission has previously ruled Navalny ineligible to run for public office until about 2028 because of a financial-crimes conviction that he says was fabricated by authorities for political reasons.
Navalny earlier on December 24 had announced he had gathered enough endorsements to run in the election after his supporters organized rallies in 20 cities across Russia to secure what they said were 15,000 signatures.
At a Moscow rally, he branded Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “bad president.”
"It's you, Vladimir Putin, that turned our country into a source of personal enrichment for yourself, your family, and your friends. Therefore, you should no longer be president," Navalny said.
About 800 Navalny supporters gathered for a formal endorsement meeting in a giant tent on the snow-covered riverside in Moscow, with 742 giving him their signature.
According to law, he needed 500 endorsements in each of 20 cities across the country, Navalny's campaign said.
Similar events took place in 19 other cities, including St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, Perm, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Yekaterinburg.
"There is no large-scale support for Putin and his rule in this country," Navalny told the meeting. He threatened a boycott of the vote by his supporters if he is barred from running.
"We are ready to win, and we will win these elections," Navalny said.
In St. Petersburg, police officers demanded that supporters remove the table and chairs prepared for the collection of signatures.
In Astrakhan, police stopped a van carrying 11 opposition activists who were on their way to take part in pro-Navalny rallies in Volgograd, opposition supporter Arsentiy Gundarev said. He said police seized the activists’ passports and other documents.
Navalny later tweeted that he had secured the signatures, saying: "I have become an official candidate nominated by activist groups of voters. Many thanks to those who have taken part in this campaign in all corners of our country. You are the best."
Navalny also gave his backing to an unauthorized event organized by Ilya Yashin, a pro-opposition municipal deputy who heads the Krasnoselsky district of Moscow and an ally of late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
The rallies coincided with the anniversary of a mass protest in Moscow sparked by what the opposition and others claimed were fraudulent State Duma elections in 2011.
Those protests culminated on May 6, 2012, on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third term as Russian president, when hundreds of people were arrested on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square while demonstrating.
Throwing his backing behind Yashin's event, Navalny commented on his blog that December 24 was a “beautiful date” to hold a rally, writing “We will remember December 24, 2011.”
In turn, Yashin, whose event was dubbed a “Day of Free Elections” festival, spoke in favor of Navalny.
RFE/RL's Russian service reported that up to 2,000 people attended Yashin's event, held in Moscow's Lermontov Square. The crowd shouted slogans such as "We are the power" and "Putin thief."
One person was detained but was almost immediately released. Yashin's unsanctioned event ended at 4:15 p.m. Moscow time without incidents.
"The refusal by Moscow authorities to sign off on the planned December 24 rally in support of fair elections is yet another example of how Russian officials use formal pretexts to ban events by the political or civic opposition," said Tanya Lokshina, the head of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch.
Yashin had spelled out earlier on his Facebook page why he was organizing the event.
“We will tell people about their electoral rights, which are guaranteed by the constitution. We will organize the registration of people who are prepared to work as monitors. We will put up a stage, invite musicians, and give out souvenirs dedicated to free elections,” Yashin wrote.
Navalny, 41, announced last December he would run for president and since then has set up scores of campaign headquarters and met voters across the country.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Russian Service earlier this month (December 4), Navalny ally Vladimir Milov said it is wrong to expect Navalny’s campaign will give up if or when he is officially barred from running because of the criminal charges.
“That will only be the start of it,” Milov said, claiming they will dispute the decision in court and “fight for Navalny’s registration until March 18,” the scheduled date of the elections, and beyond.
Navalny published his full election platform last week, focusing on fighting corruption and channeling more money into education and health care. He calls for a windfall tax on oligarchs and huge cuts to Russia's bloated bureaucracy.
Putin announced his decision to run for a fourth term on December 6. His high approval ratings and control over the levers of power make his victory a foregone conclusion in Russia, where government critics say election campaigns and results are manipulated by the authorities.
Analysts say Putin is eager to score a strong win in a vote with a high turnout in order to make his mandate as strong as possible in what could be his final six-year term, as the constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.
Other candidates have also filed with the commission to run in the election, although critics have accused the Kremlin of sanctioning some opponents merely to give the appearance of a democratic process.
One potential opponent, Sergei Mironov from A Just Russia party, on December 24 said his party had decided to support Putin and not propose its own candidate.
Ksenia Sobchak, a television personality -- whose late father was Putin's mentor in the early 1990s -- is also planning to run.
With reporting by AFP, AP, the BBC