Blogger Navalny floats presidential ambitions ahead of trial

Alexei Navalny file photo

(Moscow News – – Anna Arutunyan – April 5, 2013)

Oppositionist blogger Alexei Navalny has revealed he wants to be president, with a trial less than two weeks away that could jail him for up to 10 years on embezzlement charges.

“I want to become president,” Navalny said in an interview with the independent Dozhd TV late Thursday evening. “I want to change life in the country, I want to change the way the country is run, I want to make it so 140 million people live normally, in a European country.”

Political experts, however, believe the move is an attempt to preempt a potential conviction in a trial that they and Navalny see as politically motivated.

A court in Kirov said Wednesday that it would hold its first hearing into the embezzlement allegations against Navalny on April 17.

According to investigators, Navalny, then a voluntary adviser to the Kirov governor, organized the theft of over 10,000 cubic meters of timber from Kirovles in May to September 2009 in collusion with Vyatka Timber Company Director Pyotr Ofitserov and Kirovles CEO Vyacheslav Opalyov. The regional budget is estimated to have lost 16 million rubles ($514,140) as a result of the alleged embezzlement.

Navalny has called the charges “absurd,” and posted documents on his Livejournal blog accounting for all of the money that went through the firms. He claimed during the Dozhd interview that the decision to jail him rests with President Vladimir Putin, although he admitted that he does not have specific evidence to back this up. By law, Navalny will not be able to stand for any office if he is convicted of a crime.

A lawyer and anti-corruption activist, Navalny emerged as one of the most popular leaders of the protest movement that sprouted in late 2011, demonstrating against allegedly rigged elections and Putin’s return to the presidency.

But he had repeatedly demurred from making any presidential bids at the time. “These are not elections. When we have real elections, I will run,” he told The Moscow News during a protest rally in February 2012.

Fellow opposition leaders described Navalny’s statements this week as an apparent attempt to make it harder for the government to jail him.

“It’s one thing if the government just wants to jail a popular blogger. It’s another if they want to jail a politician who openly announced his presidential ambitions,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leader of the liberal Parnas (RP-Party of People’s Freedom), told The Moscow News. “I think this is the right move. He has to protect himself. It increases the risk for the government because [if he is jailed] he will be recognized as a political prisoner.”

But according to Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov, an outspoken member of A Just Russia, Navalny’s statement further undermines the political standing of the protest movement.

“Alexei has sacrificed certain political strategies,” he told The Moscow News. “This is a defense tactic. Politically, such statements need to be made around a presidential campaign.”

Navalny’s ratings have recently demonstrated a negative trend, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center. Although the percentage of respondents who know who he is has grown from 6 percent to 37 percent in two years, his trust ratings among those who know who he is have dropped from 64 percent to 54 percent.

A member of the nationalist LDPR party has dismissed Navalny’s presidential chances. “The country will be electing a father, a boss, a pater familias,” Duma deputy Vladimir Ovsyannikov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. He expressed doubt that Navalny could muster that kind of nationwide support.