The EU says Russian democracy is in question after election officials banned rising opposition leader from running against Vladimir Putin.
The European Union has urged the Russian Central Election Commission (RCEC) to reverse its decision to bar main opposition leader Alexei Navalny from contesting the 2018 presidential election.
“(It) casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and the prospect of democratic elections next year,” the EU’s External Action Service said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Politically motivated charges should not be used against political participation.
“We expect the Russian authorities to ensure that there is a level playing field, including in the presidential elections that will take place on 18 March.”
On Monday, the RCEC ruled Mr Navalny was ineligible to run because he had previously been convicted for fraud.
However, the 41-year-old maintains the charges that led to the suspended prison sentence were trumped up to prevent him from challenging Vladimir Putin.
This was all but confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, who ruled Mr Navalny hadn’t been given a fair trial, and ordered the government to pay his legal costs and damages.
“We knew this could happen, and so we have a straight-forward, clear plan,” Mr Navalny said of the commission’s ruling.
“We announce a boycott of the election. The process in which we are called to participate is not a real election. It will feature only Putin and the candidates which he has personally selected.”
He has also reportedly instructed his 200,000 campaign volunteers to turn their attention to stoking up a nation-wide protest.
While Mr Navalny wasn’t expected to defeat Mr Putin at the polls, it appears Moscow wants to silence the anti-corruption rhetoric that has propelled him to this position of influence.
“Vladimir Putin is extremely shaken up. He’s afraid of competing with me,” Mr Navalny said in an online video address.
“What they are offering us can’t be called elections. Only Putin and the candidates he has personally selected, those who don’t represent even the smallest threat to him, are taking part.
“To go to the polling station now is to vote for lies and corruption.”
The Kremlin insists the nation’s democracy will not be compromised by Mr Navalny’s removal.
“The fact that one of the would-be candidates is not taking part has no bearing on the election’s legitimacy,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Mr Peskov says the call for a boycott will be “rigorously studied” to see if it in any way violates Russian law.
Mr Putin, at 65, has led Russia for the past 17 years. And a win in the March election would make him eligible to serve until 2024.