Navalny vows to challenge Putin in parliamentary polls
Russia's opposition led by the charismatic activist Alexei Navalny vowed Wednesday to contest next year's parliamentary elections as liberals firm up plans to close ranks amid an intensifying Kremlin crackdown.
Last week Navalny and his Party of Progress joined ranks with the party of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in a bid to form a democratic alliance after years of bickering.
"We are going to contest the polls," said 38-year-old Navalny, a lawyer who shot to prominence during mass protests against President Vladimir Putin in 2011-2012.
He said it was of paramount importance for "millions" of liberal Russians to win political representation.
"Unfortunately these people are not represented anywhere at the moment," he told a press conference.
Russian liberal parties failed to get into parliament in 2003 and have been marginalised ever since.
Navalny, who has been fighting a series of criminal probes, cannot himself run for a parliamentary seat.
Ahead of the legislative polls the opposition would this year seek to contest local elections in three Russian regions and will conduct "primaries," he said.
"The best people will be included in the party lists," he said, speaking alongside Vladimir Milov, leader of the Democratic Choice party and several other figures.
The newly-established opposition alliance has been formed around the RPR-Parnas party of Nemtsov who was gunned down near the Kremlin in March in the most shocking assassination during Putin's 15-year rule.
Critics accuse the Russian strongman of spearheading the steady suppression of independent media and opposition parties since coming to power in 2000.
Incensed by what they saw as mass violations during the last parliamentary polls, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in 2011-2012.
The rallies have since died down, with authorities jailing some opposition activists and forcing many others to flee.
Some liberal-leaning MPs were forced out of the parliament's lower house, the State Duma, while one dissenting lawmaker, Ilya Ponomaryov, has been forced to remain in the United States over fears for his freedom.
In 2013, Navalny ran for the post of Moscow mayor and came second with a stronger than projected 27 percent of the vote.
His Western-style campaign at the time saw him stump for votes on the streets and personally distribute campaign literature on the underground rail system.
-'Need for a new party'-
Many experts are sceptical about the opposition parties' alliance, pointing to the ever-shrinking room for dissent following Russia's seizure of Crimea last year.
But others said many Russians were increasingly frustrated with the current policies and wanted to see an alternative to Kremlin-backed candidates.
Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group think tank in Moscow, said the upcoming regional elections would be an "endurance test" of sorts.
"They will show if they are ready to sacrifice their ego for the common cause," he told AFP. "The main thing that always played against the Russian opposition has been their personal ambitions."
He estimated that up to 20 percent of Russians could potentially vote for an opposition candidate.
"People say there is a need for a new party," he said, citing results of various polls.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a top Putin critic who spent a decade in Russian jails but now lives in self-imposed exile, has come out in support of the plans.
"We will try to make the elections democratic," he said in a statement last week.
The next presidential elections in Russia are scheduled for 2018, with many expecting Putin to seek re-election.
© 2015 AFP