Russia opposition leader Navalny says Kremlin sabotaging his presidential bid

KIROV/MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused the Kremlin of trying to block him from running in next year’s presidential election after a court on Wednesday found him guilty of embezzlement.

Navalny, who has made a name for himself exposing official corruption, said he would still stand for president, but it was not immediately clear if that was legally possible.

The court, in the provincial city of Kirov, found Navalny guilty of embezzlement in relation to a timber firm called Kirovles, and gave him a five-year suspended prison sentence. Navalny denies wrongdoing.

“What we are seeing now is a sort of telegram sent from the Kremlin, saying that they believe that I, my team, and the people whose views I voice, are too dangerous to allow us to take part in the election campaign,” Navalny said.

“We don’t recognize this ruling. I have every right to take part in the election according to the constitution and I will do so,” he told reporters in the court room, moments after the sentence was handed down.

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Late last year, Navalny announced a plan to run for president in 2018, when Vladimir Putin’s current term expires. Putin has not said if he will seek a new term, though most Kremlin-watchers expect him to run.

If Navalny is allowed to run and is up against Putin, opinion polls indicate the opposition leader will lose by a big margin. However, having Navalny on the ballot paper could be an irritant for the Kremlin.

It could provide a focus for anti-Kremlin protests, especially in the big urban centers where Navalny draws most of his support.

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Wednesday’s ruling was the culmination of a retrial, after the European Court of Human Rights said Navalny’s right to a fair hearing in the original trial were violated.

Russian law states that someone sentenced to a prison term for a crime such as embezzlement is disqualified from running for elected office.

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But Navalny said after the verdict he believed he could still run, because the disqualification did not apply to someone given a suspended sentence.

“We will rely on the constitution,” his lawyer Olga Mikhailova told Reuters.

A final decision on whether Navalny will be able to run will be up to the Kremlin and is likely to be made at the end of this year, said Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian politics researcher.

“The Kremlin’s goal is not to turn the next election into the butt of jokes,” she told Reuters. “Navalny is being kept in reserve, like an ace in the hole in a game of cards, but it’s not yet clear if that card will be played.”

Asked if Navalny’s absence from the presidential race would undermine the legitimacy of the election, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier on Wednesday: “We believe any concerns about this are inappropriate.”

Navalny did unexpectedly well in a 2013 mayoral election in Moscow, but has lost some support recently because of the popularity of Putin’s policies, said Yevgeny Minchenko, a political analyst familiar with Kremlin thinking.

“The (opposition) statement that the election would only be legitimate if Navalny took part is a bluff,” said Minchenko.

Additional reporting by Svetlana Reiter; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova/Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Trevelyan