MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ten days after cutting off his monitoring tag and declaring he would not stay under house arrest, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny says Russian police are standing by while he walks out of his door.
Although the house arrest order has not been lifted since an embezzlement case against him ended in a suspended sentence on Dec. 30, no one has stopped him from leaving his Moscow apartment or giving a radio interview.
“I just decided not to comply with the house arrest and broke their rules,” Navalny told Ekho Moskvy radio station. When he left his apartment, his guards merely asked him not to go too fast so that they did not lose him, he said.
The punishment for destroying the electronic ankle bracelet was only 670 rubles ($10), which he says he has paid. The tag has not been replaced.
But Navalny, who led mass protests in Moscow three years ago, depicts the Kremlin as still nervous about how to handle him as Russia slides deeper into an economic crisis that could dent President Vladimir Putin’s popularity.
Police briefly detained the anti-corruption blogger after Wednesday’s radio interview and escorted him home, and he faces a likely appeal by state prosecutors against the suspended sentence, which they say was too lenient.
“I have no doubt they’re now preparing some new accusations against me and there’ll be another house arrest order,” he said, making clear he believed the decisions on his fate were being taken by Putin himself. “It’s obvious that only one man takes the decision on whether to land me in prison.”
On Thursday, police detained about a dozen people from among several hundred protesters gathered on a central Moscow square by the crenellated, red brick walls of the Kremlin.
The gathering had initially been planned as a rally in support of Navalny. But activists loyal to the Kremlin made up the majority of the crowd, after the blogger in the past few days called on his backers not to attend and to save their energy for later.
Navalny, 38, remains one of the biggest thorns in Putin’s side even though he appears to have little chance of mounting a serious electoral challenge to the Kremlin leader, whose popularity is high following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last March.
Navalny won a better-than-expected 27.3 percent of votes in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election. Though he lost out to the Kremlin-backed Sergei Sobyanin, allies hailed his showing as a victory in a political system where elections are tightly controlled.
He told Ekho Moskvy, a liberal station often critical of Putin, that if his Progress Party were registered by the authorities it would be capable of depriving the pro-Putin United Russia party of its parliamentary majority.
For now, though, all the government’s actions were aimed at keeping Putin in power for life, Navalny said.
Navalny was handed a suspended sentence on Dec. 30 after being found guilty of embezzling money.
He was placed under house arrest almost a year ago during the investigation but said after the trial ended that the order no longer had any legal basis.
His brother was jailed for three and a half years in the same case. They had faced charges of stealing 30 million rubles, now worth around $460,000, from two firms including an affiliate of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.
Additional reporting by Maxim Zmeev and Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Peter Graff and Mark Trevelyan