Putin critic Alexei Navalny clears first hurdle in bid for Russia presidency

MOSCOW, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny cleared the first hurdle on Sunday towards taking part in next year's presidential election, even though the central election commission has previously ruled him ineligible to run.

Navalny, 41, is a fierce opponent of President Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to win re-election in March, extending his 17 years in power.

On Sunday Navalny, a veteran campaigner against corruption among Russia's elite, won the initial support of 742 people at a gathering in a district of Moscow, above the minimum 500 required to initiate a presidential bid.

"There is no large-scale support for Putin and his rule in this country," Navalny told the gathering, describing himself as a "real candidate" for the election and threatening a boycott of the vote by his supporters if he is barred from running.

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Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny attends a march in central Saint Petersburg on February 25, 2012. Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny led thousands through the streets of Vladimir Putin's native city demonstrating against his likely return to the Kremlin in March 4 polls. AFP PHOTO/ OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny stands outside a court in the provincial northern city of Kirov on April 24, 2013. A Russian court in Kirov reopened today the trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is accused of embezzlement and may face up to a decade in jail if convicted. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny (L), flanked by his wife Yulia (R), addresses supporters and journalists upon his arrival in a Moscow's railway station on July 20, 2013. Navalny told hundreds of cheering supporters on Saturday that he would push ahead with his bid to become Moscow mayor after his surprise release from jail pending an appeal of an embezzlement conviction. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
One of Russian protest movement leaders, Alexei Navalny, speaks as he arrives for the hearing of his case in a court in Moscow, on February 28, 2014. A Moscow court ordered today Navalny to be placed under house arrest after a request from investigators probing an alleged embezzlement case. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 27: Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny attends a march on the anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia on February 27, 2016. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 30, 2017: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny appears at the Moscow City Court for a hearing into his appeal against a 15-day detention order. Navalny was detained at an unauthorized anti-corruption rally in Moscow on March 26, 2017. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2017: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny speaks during a meeting with Vladivostok residents. Yuri Smityuk/TASS (Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images)
VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2017: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny speaks during a meeting with Vladivostok residents. Yuri Smityuk/TASS (Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images)
IZHEVSK, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 11, 2017: Opposition activist Alexei Navalny meets with his supporters in central Izhevsk, Republic of Udmurtia, Russia during his presidential election campaign. Yegor Aleyev/TASS (Photo by Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA DECEMBER 24, 2017: Opposition activist Alexei Navalny meets with his supporters as he announces his decision to run in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Sergei Fadeichev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a meeting to uphold his bid for presidential candidate, in Moscow, Russia December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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But Navalny now needs to be officially registered as a candidate by Russia's central election commission, which has previously said he is ineligible due to a suspended prison sentence that he says was politically motivated.

Navalny has been jailed three times this year on charges of repeatedly organizing public meetings and rallies in violation of existing laws. He says the Kremlin is deliberately trying to thwart his political ambitions.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in October that Navalny's conviction for fraud in 2014 was "arbitrary" and ordered Moscow to pay him compensation.

On Saturday Russia's ruling party United Russia pledged "all possible support" to the 65-year-old Putin in his bid to win a further six years in power in the March election.

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Russian protesters call for Putin to quit
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian opposition activist Mark Galperin (C) speeches during an opposition rally in Central Moscow, Russia, April, 29, 2017. Hundreds activists were gathered by the Open Russia opposition movement near the Presidential Administration to bring their letters calling Vladimir Putin not to run the 2018 Presidential Elections. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Opposition activist Maria Baronova (L) , and pro-Kremlin political activist Maria Katasonova (R) meet before an unsanctioned protest in downtown in Moscow, Russia on April 29, 2017. Several hundred demonstrators are gathered in central Moscow, trying to move to the nearby presidential administration building to present letters calling on Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term in office in 2018. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: An opposition supporter wearing tape on his mouth waits in queue outside the president's administrative office to hand in his petition against Vladimir Putin's expected candidacy in elections set for 2018, during a protest rally in Moscow, Russia on April 29, 2017. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Opposition activist Maria Baronova (L) and pro-Kremlin political activist Maria Katasonova (R) meet before an unsanctioned protest in downtown in Moscow, Russia on April 29, 2017. Several hundred demonstrators are gathered in central Moscow, trying to move to the nearby presidential administration building to present letters calling on Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term in office in 2018. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KAZAN, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Police take protesters into custody during a rally that urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term for Presidential elections in Kazan, Russia on April 29, 2017. (Photo by Alexey Nasyrov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAINT-PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Police take protesters into custody during a rally that urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term for Presidential elections at Gorkovskaya subway station in Saint-Petersburg, Russia on April 29, 2017. (Photo by Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian riot policemen awaits for the beginning of an opposition rally in Central Moscow, Russia, April, 29, 2017. Hundreds activists were gathered by the Open Russia opposition movement near the Presidential Administration to bring their letters calling Vladimir Putin not to run the 2018 Presidential Elections. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
SAINT-PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Protesters are seen during a rally that urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term for Presidential elections at Gorkovskaya subway station in Saint-Petersburg, Russia on April 29, 2017. (Photo by Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Opposition supporters wait in queue outside the president's administrative office to deliver letters calling for Vladimir Putin not to stand for a fourth term in 2018, during a protest rally in Moscow, April 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers detain an activist during a protest rally calling for Vladimir Putin not to stand for a fourth term in 2018, in Saint Petersburg on April 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Olga MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Interior Ministry officers detain a participant of an opposition protest, calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin not to run for another presidential term next year, in St. Petersburg, Russia, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Interior Ministry officers maintain order as people stand in a queue to get to an office of the presidential administration during an opposition protest, calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin not to run for another presidential term next year, in Moscow, Russia, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
An Interior Ministry officer maintains order near people, who stand in a queue to get to an office of the presidential administration during an opposition protest, calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin not to run for another presidential term next year, in Moscow, Russia, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
People protest against what they see as the government?s pro-Russia policies near the Russian embassy in Budapest, Hungary, April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh
People protest against what they see as the government?s pro-Russia policies near the Russian embassy in Budapest, Hungary, April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh
Alexander Litreev, developer of the "Red Button" phone application used to tackle police detention of protesters at demonstrations across the country, poses for a picture in Moscow, Russia, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Open Russia movement coordinator Maria Baronova (2nd R), surrounded by journalists and an Interior Ministry officer, walks during a protest, calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin not to run for another presidential term next year, in central Moscow, Russia, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
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Also on Saturday the Russian Communist Party named its presidential candidate, Pavel Grudinin, 57. The party came second after United Russia in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

On Sunday Russian property developer Sergei Polonsky, who has been convicted of defrauding investors, also secured enough initial backing to seek clearance from the election commission to take part in the presidential race.

Others planning to run include television personality Ksenia Sobchak, whose late father was Putin's boss in the early 1990s, journalist Ekaterina Gordon.

(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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