MOSCOW (Reuters) – Hundreds of Russian celebrities, sportspeople and politicians nominated President Vladimir Putin for re-election on Tuesday, hours after the Kremlin said it wanted opposition leader Alexei Navalny investigated for calling for a boycott of the vote.
Mr Navalny called for the boycott of the March 18 election on Monday after Russia’s central election commission ruled he was not eligible to run for president due to a suspended prison sentence hanging over him.
The 41-year-old lawyer, who says he’s being excluded on false grounds because the Kremlin is running scared, said he would use his campaign headquarters across the country to call the election’s legitimacy into question and organise protests.
The Kremlin, which points to polls that show Mr Putin is the runaway favourite with Mr Navalny trailing far behind, set the scene for possible police action against Mr Navalny and his supporters whose protests have been broken up before.
“The calls for a boycott will require scrupulous study, to see whether or not they comply with the law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
Declining to comment on the election commission’s decision to bar Mr Navalny, Mr Peskov shrugged off allegations that the presidential poll would be a farce without the opposition leader, who has made a name for himself by leveraging social media and conducting corruption investigations into senior officials.
“The fact that one of the would-be candidates is not taking part has no bearing on the election’s legitimacy,” said Mr Peskov. Hours later Mr Putin, 65, was feted by his supporters, almost 700 of whom pledged to back him for re-election – above the minimum 500 required to initiate a presidential bid.
Mr Putin’s schedule was too busy for him to attend the Moscow nomination event, the Kremlin said, though he is expected to personally submit the paperwork to the central election commission in the coming days.
The former KGB officer is running as an independent, a move seen as a way of strengthening his image as a “father of the nation” rather than as a party political figure.
The ruling United Russia party and the Just Russia party have both said they will support him.
“I have worked under the leadership of the president for quite a long time so I know that everything will be alright for us with President Putin,” Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s former ambassador to the US, now a senator, said at the nomination meeting.