MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's leading opposition figure launched his campaign against the Kremlin's handpicked choice for mayor of Moscow Monday despite being on trial in a case he says is politically motivated.
Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny promised about 100 supporters in a hotel auditorium he would "destroy" President Vladimir Putin's allies and "make life better" in Russia's capital by winning snap elections to be held in early September.
"We're different from all those people in the mayor's office and the Kremlin who only have one practical program," Navalny said. "They want to steal from us here, transfer it to an offshore account, buy houses on (Moscow's "millionaire's row") Rublevka and in Spain, send their children to study in Switzerland, and then come on national TV and tell us about their new law to strengthen patriotism," he added.
Navalny has become the face of the movement against Putin. His program includes measures to decentralize city spending — 99% of which is controlled by the mayor's office — elect magistrates, fight Moscow's paralyzing traffic jams, stop corrupt officials from hiring illegal immigrants and skimming off their salaries, and improve Moscow's dismal 30th place in the Doing Business rankings of Russian cities.
But the campaign launch was somewhat overshadowed by the air of doom hovering over the opposition as Putin's crackdown on dissent gathers pace. Prominent liberal economist Sergei Guriev, who co-authored Navalny's program, fled Russia in May after becoming embroiled in a criminal investigation surrounding jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and had to appear by video link.
After the event, Navalny took an overnight train to stand trial in the city of Kirov on embezzlement charges carrying a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. In the past year, Navalny has been charged in five other cases that he says were fabricated on Putin's orders.
Navalny's supporters say the trial is being micro-managed from Moscow and they expect a guilty verdict by the end of the month, though they hope for a suspended sentence. Under a law passed last year, people convicted of felonies like the ones Navalny is charged with cannot run for public office.
Even if Navalny keeps his freedom, incumbent mayor and Kremlin candidate Sergei Sobyanin — a native Siberian who had never lived in Moscow before becoming Putin's chief of staff in 2005 and who was appointed mayor by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 — is expected to win handily.
As well as having far greater resources and much more time to prepare than his opponents, Sobyanin is aided by a "municipal filter" brought in when mayoral elections were reintroduced last year that requires the signatures of 110 local council members by July 10.
Forty council members have committed to Navalny and a further 40 have promised him their signature, Vladimir Ashurkov, director of his anti-corruption foundation, said. Candidates then have to get signatures from 73,000 Muscovites.
Sobyanin, who has presided over a mild Westernization of Moscow, is supported by about 45 percent of Muscovites, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center last month.
Navalny polled 3 percent, but may benefit from New Jersey Nets owner and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov's decision not to run. The 31 other candidates also have only a fraction of the vote and are widely perceived as a Kremlin attempt to simulate competitive elections.
Navalny vowed to continue his campaign whether or not he makes the ballot — or makes it out of Kirov a free man. "We're totally serious about this election," he said. "Putin, Sobyanin and all the Kremlin and Moscow scumbags don't want to let us run, they're scared," he added.