Russia's opposition coalition to contest regional polls

Alexei Navalny (22 April 2015) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Navalny will learn on Thursday whether his suspended sentence will become time in jail

Russia's main opposition groups say they will combine forces to fight for election in three regions this autumn.

They are hoping for a springboard for the 2016 national parliamentary vote.

The "democratic coalition" was formed last weekend to unite six parties and groups under the banner of RPR-Parnas, the party of murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

The coalition includes the party of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, but he cannot run for office.

He is serving a suspended prison sentence in an embezzlement case that he argues was fabricated.

"Our aim is to provide political representation for the huge number of citizens who share our ideals," Navalny explained at his Moscow headquarters on Wednesday. "Those who believe that Russia can develop like a normal, European state."

The Duma has been stripped of any real opposition under President Vladimir Putin.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The opposition groups rallied under the party banner of Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered near the Kremlin in February

The entry threshold was raised and opposition parties' chances dramatically reduced by their near-total exclusion from state television. They have also long been riven by deep rivalries and divisions, which the new alliance vows to overcome.

It plans to field candidates in three diverse regions - Novosibirsk, Kostroma and Kaluga - in order to test techniques and policies ahead of the 2016 Duma ballot.

Sociological surveys also indicate significant potential support there. The aim is to hone in on regional problems, whilst highlighting the link to broader policies.

"We need to explain that Russia's foreign policy is creating the crisis that's affecting people," explains Konstantin Merzlikin of RPR-Parnas, referring to the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine that brought Western sanctions and an economic slump.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Navalny and other coalition members explained their strategy on Wednesday

They plan to select candidates for the three ballots through "primaries" within the regions themselves to maximise support.

"Of course there will be attempts to impede us at the highest level," Alexei Navalny warned. The alliance may yet be blocked from participating in the election.

Navalny is back in court on Thursday to learn whether his current suspended sentence will be converted into time in jail.

"If so, nothing will change, someone else will be here instead of me," he insisted, arguing that it only proved that the authorities feared the competition.

"This is precisely because so many Russians are not represented politically, and are not happy with what's happening. They understand that Russia should move in a different direction. We are for those people," Navalny said.

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