Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an eccentric nationalist firebrand whose party rarely defies President Vladimir Putin, has become the first officially registered candidate in Russia's March 18 presidential election.
The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) registered Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) chief Zhirinovsky on December 29.
Kazakhstan-born Zhirinovsky has a long reputation for statements seen as belligerent or xenophobic, but many Russians view him with benign bemusement and the LDPR regularly joins in rubberstamping Kremlin-backed legislation in parliament.
In the past, he has proposed building a barbed wire fence along parts of southern Russia, where many Muslim Russians live, and called for Russia to take Alaska back from the United States.
Zhirinovsky, 71, has run in every presidential election since 1996, with the exception of the 2004 vote. Critics say he and his party have become little more than cogs in Putin's system of rule.
Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, is seeking a new six-year term in the election. 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 authorities.
Aleksei Navalny, an opposition politician and fierce critic of Putin, is calling on Russians to boycott the election after being barred from the ballot due to a criminal conviction he contends was politically motivated. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear his legal challenge against the CEC decision to disqualify him on December 30.
The CEC took steps toward registering several other candidates on December 29, including Pavel Grudinin of the Communist Party, journalist Yekaterina Gordon of the Party of Good Deeds, and Sergei Baburin of the Russian All-People Union party, allowing them to set up bank accounts for their presidential campaigns. They must file documents for official registration as presidential candidates by January 31.
More than 20 people have declared their intention to run in the March election, including liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, business ombudsman Boris Titov, and journalist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on March 18, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a run-off election.
With reporting by TASS and Interfax