Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption lawyer Alexey Navalny announced on December 13 that he will be running for president in the 2018 election.
In a video statement posted on YouTube and on his website he said, “I am running to make Russia better. I will fight for my victory. There was no real elections in Russia since 1996. Those in power are there for the last 17 years. The Kremlin and the government care only about their personal financial issues. That is why they do not allow any competition - even in the elections.”
Navalny’s announcement comes amid an ongoing retrial on charges of embezzlement. Russian politicians close to Kremlin say that motivated his decision to run for president.
Konstantin Kostin, who until 2012 worked in the Kremlin as the head of the domestic policy department and later as senior adviser to Vladimir Putin’s administration, in a comment to Russia’s news agency TASS, implied that Navalny’s presidential bid is “an attempt to manipulate the court.”
Navalny was convicted in 2013 and received a suspended sentence. He was under house arrest until 2015. The court also banned him from participation in elections or holding office until 2033.
Navalny appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and in February 2016, the ECHP ruled that the Russian court violated Navalny’s right to a fair trial, annulling the court's conviction and lifting a ban on political activities.
Following the ECHR verdict, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned Navalny’s conviction. But instead of clearing him of the charges, it ordered a retrial.
Christopher Swift, an international lawyer at Georgetown University in Washington told Polygraph.info that after the Russian Supreme Court overturned Navalny's prior conviction, and then returned the case to a district court “there wouldn't be a European Court issue here, or an international law issue. Instead, it would be a question of Russian law.”
Navalny’s attorney Vadim Kobzev told Polygraph.info from the Russian city of Kirov where the hearing is being held: “After the Russian Supreme Court overturned my clients' conviction, there are no legal obstacles for Alexei Navalny’s participation in political elections.”
Kobzev declined to comment on whether his clients' presidential bid could be used as a bargaining point in court.
Paul Goble, a former U.S. State Department official and an expert on Russia and Eurasia, told Polygraph.info that Navalny's presidential bid may have some sway.
“Navalny understands that in Russia, the courts do the bidding of the political establishment," he said. "He likely thinks that by announcing his candidacy, he can force the Kremlin to find him not guilty, especially since on many issues, e.g. Crimea, he is close to Putin's position.”
Navalny has openly supported the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula.
Still, legal expert Swift said Navalny’s court issue is complicated.
"In some ways a retrial is worse for him than a conviction because it allows his opponents to call his eligibility for office and personal integrity into question - even if there's ultimately nothing that merits a conviction," he said.
“We have seen the Russian Government use the legal system for political purposes in the past, and this is something we should monitor carefully as Navalny's candidacy progresses,” Swift said.