MOSCOW — Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny is back in Moscow after being freed on bail pending an appeal of his theft conviction. The opposition leader says he is ready to campaign for Moscow’s upcoming mayoral election.
When 37-year-old lawyer Alexei Navalny arrived in Kirov facing theft charges, he automatically assumed he would be found guilty.
And he was.
The anti-corruption blogger was convicted of stealing $500,000 from a state timber firm while he was serving as an unpaid advisor to a governor in the region in 2009.
Navalny and his supporters have consistently maintained that he was targeted by the Kremlin because he spearheaded demonstrations against Vladimir Putin as he prepared to return to the presidency for an unprecedented third term.
But in a surprising twist, after thousands took to the streets across Russia protesting Navalny’s conviction, prosecutors asked that he be freed on bail pending appeal.
Navalny said that he is surprised.
He said we understand that what has happened now is a unique thing in the Russian judicial system and that it has never happened to anybody else.
The newly freed Navalny, along with his wife, arrived on an overnight train from Kirov to a welcome by hundreds of supporters in Moscow early Saturday morning.
The activist told them that it was because of their support that he was a free man, at least for a month, until the court could hear his appeal.
Navalny says he is going to make every moment count by throwing himself into running in Moscow’s mayoral race and that he will win.
Right after his release, the lawyer seemed more ambivalent about his ambitions for Moscow’s mayor.
He said, "I am not the Kremlin’s pet kitten or their puppy who they can throw out of the election. I am going to discuss everything with my electoral campaign staff."
An independent poll by the Levada Center taken earlier this month shows that Navalny would attract about eight percent support among likely voters in Moscow’s first mayoral election in decades. Mayors were previously appointed.
The Kremlin has consistently maintained that it is not singling out Navalny, merely enforcing the law.
Meanwhile, some analysts say Navalny’s release, albeit temporarily, could signal a shift in what many see as Mr. Putin’s crack down on dissent.