MOSCOW (AP) — Alexei Navalny's campaign chief says Russia's popular opposition leader will keep campaigning for authorities to cancel an election ban.
Navalny, who organized nationwide anti-corruption protests last month, plans to run against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 election. Yet Navalny's February conviction in a retrial of a fraud case formally barred him from running for president.
The March anti-corruption protests that rocked Russia's 11 time zones were stunning for Putin's authoritarian rule. The rallies, largest in years and previously contained to the country's cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, spilled over to provincial towns that rarely see political protests.
Navalny, a lawyer, made his mark by publishing investigations about official corruption in Russia. His latest expose — an hour-long documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's alleged secret wealth — has received more than 15 million views. Navalny called the March protests to demand an official reaction from the government, which kept mum about it.
His campaign chief Leonid Volkov, who was released Wednesday after spending ten days in police custody for disobeying police orders, told The Associated Press on Thursday that "the March 26 protests showed that Alexei Navalny is the politician who feels the political sentiment in the country most keenly."
More than 1,000 protesters were arrested in Moscow at the March 26 rally, and many of them were sentenced to brief jail terms and fines. A dozen people working for Navalny also served jail time.
Without naming Navalny, President Putin, who faces re-election in March 2018, has denounced the protest organizers for trying to use anti-corruption slogans in their "narrow selfish political goals."
With the official election ban in place, the immediate goal of Navalny's campaign, Volkov said, is to get the Kremlin to overturn the ban by showing to them that the damage from not allowing Navalny to run is greater than the risk of allowing him on the ballot.
Navalny is a rare opposition politician who wants to campaign all over Russia instead of focusing on a few major urban areas. He has opened campaign headquarters in nearly two dozen cities from western Russia to the Far East. The campaign expects to open 40 offices by the end of May.
Campaigning across Russia and calling for rallies in the areas that have not seen protests for years is an important step in empowering Russia's marginalized opposition, Volkov said.
"(People told us) 'We didn't know there were so many of us in our town,'" Volkov said. "Our main goal is to hold on to this and turn this into a political movement."
Navalny, who was arrested immediately after arriving at the Moscow rally, is due to be released Monday.