“We won’t have an election because Vladimir Putin is horribly afraid – he sees a threat in competing with me,” Mr. Navalny, 41, said in a video that, anticipating the decision to bar him, he recorded before the ban was announced.
Allowing Mr. Navalny to compete in March might help Mr. Putin solve one of his biggest problems: how to turn an election that promises to be little more than tedious coronation into a contest with a frisson of excitement.
Having excluded Mr. Navalny from the ballot, the Kremlin worries that he could still cause Mr. Putin headaches by urging voters to stay at home.
Dmitri Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman and a target of Mr. Navalny’sinvestigations into the curious wealth of senior officials and their family members, said on Tuesday that Mr. Navalny’s calls for an election boycott “Will require scrupulous study to see whether or not they comply with the law.” The statement opened the way for an investigation by law enforcement agencies and possible criminal prosecution against Mr. Navalny and his aides.
While Mr. Putin may not expect to match that, he would like to win his fourth and probably last presidential election with more than the 63 percent he secured in 2012.Something else may also be weighing on Mr. Putin’s mind: the memory of the mass street protests that broke out in Moscow in the winter of2012-13 and, even more upsetting, the protests in Ukraine four years ago that forced the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, from office and into self-imposed exile in Russia.
“Putin is afraid of letting Navalny into public politics because Navalny has a great potential to mobilize: people will go out for him” onto the streets, said Aleksandr Morozov, a Moscow political analyst.
Mr. Navalny is unlike most other nominally opposition Russian politicians, who rely on Kremlin support, never criticize Mr. Putin and make little effort to connect with voters.
Mr. Putin, while not uttering Mr. Navalny’s name, compared him to Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who came to power after street demonstrations and who now, as an opposition politician in Ukraine, has rallied protesters against President Petro O. Poroshenko.