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Russian Opposition Leader Says Upcoming Election is Illegitimate   

FILE - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, in Moscow, Feb. 25, 2018. Thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to mark three years since Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin.

Russians are expected to vote Sunday in a presidential election, but disqualified opposition candidate Alexei Navalny told VOA's Russian service that he expected the entire process to be a sham, even down to the European election observers.

“All those so-called European observers invited by the State Duma: they are 'observers' in the sense that other presidential candidates are 'rivals' to Putin,” Navalny said in the Thursday interview, excerpts of which are available in English here. “Of course this is an absolute fake. It’s ridiculous and unpleasant to look at how Putin corrupted and turned into his puppets a significant part of the European establishment."

Navalny, for years an anti-corruption activist and outspoken opponent of the government, was disqualified from the race in December because of a conviction for embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the conviction was politically motivated, but it was upheld in Russian courts. Navalny was given a suspended five-year sentence.

Navalny said Sunday’s election would be marked by illegitimacy. He has called for a boycott.

Putin faces seven challengers, but is expected to take an overwhelming majority of the vote.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 14, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 14, 2018.

“Our task in this campaign is that as many people as possible understand that these are not elections" and refuse to take part in them, Navalny said. “And we will fight for it.”

Putin has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999. He has switched back and forth between the two roles to circumvent a Russian law banning him from serving more than two consecutive terms as president.

Yet, opinion polls show he has far more support than any of his rivals, who run the gamut from far-right populist to far-left communist. With another Putin win practically guaranteed, Navalny and other experts say Russian authorities will try to use inflated voter turnout numbers to prove the election was a success.

Navalny said the elections are staged to look free and fair, but that at best they are an insincere effort. “We are faced with a construct in which they, the authorities, look into the eyes of the public and say: ‘You know we will not allow you to choose your own people’s representatives. We offered you some people — you can vote for them,’” he said.

But, he added, “it’s pointless to participate in the construct that, from the get-go, foresees Putin’s result is over 70 percent.”

Sunday's vote will span 11 time zones, starting with the far east and ending with the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, and 108,968,869 people are registered to cast ballots. State-owned polling company VCIOM projects a turnout of 71 percent.

Yet, the Russian nongovernmental research organization Levada Center conducted a survey in December that indicated 58 percent of voters planned to boycott the elections.

This story originated in VOA's Russian Service.