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MOSCOW – A prominent Russian opposition leader who made his name exposing official corruption says he hopes to win the next presidential election so he has the power to crack down on Russia's "current government of thieves."
Alexei Navalny's statement marked the first time he openly declared his intention to run for president. Some observers saw Navalny's move as an attempt to raise the ante ahead of his trial later this month on embezzlement charges, which he rejects as politically motivated.
Navalny, 36, said on the independent Rain TV late Thursday that he wants the nation's top job in order to change life in Russia for the better and would see that Putin and his lieutenants end up in prison for their alleged abuses.
"I want to become president. I want to change the model of government" so the nation's leaders "don't lie and don't steal." He said his goal is to make sure the Russians "stop living in poverty and hopeless misery and live normally like in a European country."
Navalny, a charismatic lawyer and popular blogger, exposed official corruption and became a key driving force behind a series of massive protests in Moscow against Putin's return to the presidency. The rallies attracted more than 100,000 people in the largest outpouring of public anger since the 1991 Soviet collapse, but failed to prevent Putin's return to the presidency in the March 2012 vote for another six-year term.
Navalny didn't take part in the race and remained coy about his ambitions until Thursday's announcement.
As the protests fizzled following Putin's inauguration, the Kremlin-controlled parliament quickly stamped a series of repressive laws that introduced heavy fines for participants in unsanctioned rallies and requested non-government organizations that receive foreign funds and engage in loosely-defined political activities to register as "foreign agents," the term invoking Soviet-era spying paranoia. In recent weeks, Russian prosecutors have launched searches of thousands of NGOs across the country to check their compliance with the law.
Scores of opposition activists have faced arrests, searches and criminal probes. Navalny is to go on trial in April 17 on charges of leading an organized crime group that stole more than 10,000 cubic meters of timber worth 16 million rubles (about $500,000) while he worked for a provincial governor. He has dismissed the charges as absurd and described them as an attempt by the Kremlin to sideline a political opponent.
Another opposition leader, Eduard Limonov, said Friday that Navalny sought to raise the stakes and boost his support before the trial by declaring a presidential bid. "'Navalny, an opposition presidential candidate,' sounds better than 'blogger Navalny,'" he said.