MOSCOW – Hundreds of supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny nominated him for president Sunday, allowing Navalny to file the endorsement papers required for his candidacy and putting pressure on the Kremlin to allow him to run.
Navalny, the most formidable foe President Vladimir Putin has faced during 18 years in power, is prohibited from seeking political office because of a criminal conviction that is largely viewed as retribution. However, he could enter the race, if he gets special dispensation or the conviction is thrown out.
About 800 Navalny supporters assembled in a giant tent for the formal endorsement meeting held in Moscow's snow-covered Silver Forest. His allies said multiple meeting venues refused to host the gathering.
Ivan Zhdanov, who chaired the meeting, joked that the riverside event ended up being convened at a place where the address is "Silver Forest, Beach Number 3."
"Has everyone got their swimming trunks?" Zhdanov asked the participants.
Election authorities observed the endorsement process. Navalny and his legal advisers submitted the nomination papers with the Russian Election Commission on Sunday evening.
Outdoor endorsement gatherings also took place in 19 other cities, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg.
In Moscow, the process was delayed because the printer being used to generate the paperwork stopped working in the cold woods. While Navalny's staff tried to fix the machine, several hundred people gathered on a central Moscow square to demonstrate support for his nomination.
Biologist Svetlana Sorokina, 41, said it was important to show the Kremlin "there are many people like us."
Nearby, police officers warned the crowd through loudspeakers they were breaking the law and threatened to disperse the rally. Sorokina said she was "a little bit scared."
"I understand the danger. But I got prepared. I told my parents," she said. "They expect me to call and say everything is OK."
For Tatyana Komendant, 65, whether Navalny would make a good president or not was secondary. What mattered was getting the Kremlin to allow an open race in which anyone interested who met the eligibility requirements would be allowed to run, she said.
"Any alternative is good. It would be better if Putin was to be replaced by anyone," Komendant said.
Russian law requires candidates to submit endorsements from just 500 people before they may start collecting the 1 million signatures needed to appear on the ballot. Putin's representatives are expected to file his nomination papers on Tuesday.
Election officials were expected to accept Navalny's paperwork, but it's highly unlikely they will allow him to proceed to the signature-gathering stage.
Polling agencies show Putin all but certain to win the March election. Polls show him with an 80 percent approval rating among Russian citizens. But Navalny has managed to galvanize some of the vast country's sleepiest regions with a yearlong grass-roots campaign.
"We have seen for ourselves this year that overwhelming support for authorities simply isn't there," Navalny said during an American-style campaign speech at the nomination meeting, where he was flanked by his wife and children.
He reiterated he was confident he would win the presidential election if he were allowed to run. He called on his supporters to boycott the vote, if election authorities refuse to register him.
A lawyer by training, Navalny came to public prominence in 2009, when he began publishing investigations of corruption at Russia's biggest state-controlled companies. He spearheaded massive anti-government protests in 2011-2012 in reaction to wide-spread fraud during the parliamentary election.
Navalny came under pressure from authorities as he gained popularity. He faced countless detentions and jailings for staging protests and spent months under house arrest while being investigated for fraud. He was convicted on two sets of unrelated fraud charges. His brother was sent to prison in what was seen as political revenge.
He ran in Moscow's 2013 mayoral election and received nearly 30 percent of the vote.