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Freed Putin foe Navalny vows fight for power on return to Moscow

Alexey Navalny, a leading opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, vowed to fight for power as crowds of cheering supporters greeted him in Moscow after being freed while he appeals a five-year prison sentence.

Navalny, 37, arrived at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky railway station today from the city of Kirov, where the trial took place, to tumultuous scenes as riot police turned out to control hundreds of activists holding white flowers and dressed in T- shirts emblazoned with his name.

“The state is powerless, we are the power,” Navalny, who is running for Moscow mayor in September elections, shouted via a loudspeaker. “In front of us lies a big and tough election campaign, seven weeks of non-stop work, and this is only the start. Let’s fight for political power in this country.”

Navalny, who helped organize the biggest protests against Putin’s 13-year-rule in 2011 and last year, was convicted of embezzlement by a judge in Kirov, 900 kilometers (560 miles) northeast of Moscow on July 18. Thousands of people in Moscow protested the verdict, which also sparked condemnation by the U.S. and Europe, on the eve of a meeting of Group of 20 finance chiefs. The benchmark Micex Index slumped as much as 1.6 percent.

When Navalny said he’d withdraw from the Moscow mayoral race if he remained in prison, prosecutors unexpectedly asked the court to free him pending appeal.

Putin appointed his chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin as Moscow mayor in 2010 to end the 14-year rule of Yury Luzhkov. The president backed Sobyanin’s push for a snap election, allowing him to capitalize on popular support. The Sept. 8 vote will be the capital’s first direct ballot for a mayor in 10 years.

‘Turning Point’

Pyotr Khodikov, a 25-year-old from the Moscow region who took part in the pro-Navalny rally on the day of his conviction, said the authorities are making a mistake by using the opposition leader to boost the legitimacy of the election.

“If they jail a candidate for Moscow mayor who’s got several million votes, it will be a scandal and a big turning point,” Khodikov said at the railway station. “He’s already the undisputed leader of the Russian opposition. Over the next few years he’ll only get stronger.”

A lawyer and anti-corruption activist, Navalny vowed to contest the next presidential election in 2018 and put Putin and his billionaire allies in jail if he won. His conviction, if upheld, would preclude him from ever holding public office.

Putin, 60, has hardened his response against critics since winning a new six-year presidential term last year. Some protesters have been imprisoned, while economist Sergei Guriev and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, critics fearing prosecution, fled Russia this year.

Sobyanin would win 34 percent of the vote, according to a survey of 1,000 Muscovites conducted July 4-8 by the research company Levada center. Navalny would be second with 4 percent, according to the poll, which had a 4.8 percentage point margin of error. Forty-two percent were undecided.

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