MOSCOW – Kremlin loyalist Sergei Sobyanin was sworn in Thursday as Moscow’s mayor over the objections of opposition candidate Alexei Navalny, who said he was filing hundreds of legal challenges contesting the results of a weekend election.
Incumbent Sobyanin narrowly avoided a runoff by securing 51% of the vote Sunday to Navalny’s 27%.
Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and leading critic of President Vladimir Putin, accused the Moscow mayor's office of rigging the vote and demanded a recount. The Moscow Election Commission agreed to consider his complaint Monday, but the next day declared Sobyanin the winner.
On Thursday morning, Navalny asked the Moscow city court to postpone the inauguration pending consideration of a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results, but the request was turned down. He also started filing what he said would be 951 complaints with 36 district courts alleging irregularities at individual polling stations, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
The inauguration took place at the War of 1812 Museum and was attended by numerous dignitaries, including President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill. Hundreds of people gathered at nearby Poklonnaya Hill, in western Moscow, to watch the somber ceremony broadcast on huge screens.
Putin said Sunday’s voting was conducted “in a really free, absolutely competitive struggle without any pressure or attempts to distort the results.”
Sobyanin thanked Putin for his support. Patriarch Kirill blessed Sobyanin and handed him an icon of St. George, Moscow’s patron saint.
Navalny accuses his rival of numerous election violations, including buying the votes of veterans with free food parcels. His campaign is particularly concerned about the unusually high number of people, about 100,000, who voted from home, an option available to those too elderly, sick or disabled to make it to the polls.
In mid-July, a month into the mayoral campaign, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison in an embezzlement case that he said was politically motivated. Navalny spent a night in jail and was released the next day pending an appeal, which allowed him to continue in the mayoral race.
Some experts believe Navalny's release was the result of major protests in Moscow and across Russia, as well as the vocal concerns of Western governments. Others say the authorities wanted him to run to legitimize the results.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Navalny's showing was “substantial” but dismissed it as a “momentary” thing.
“He is not a winner in this election, he is a loser,” Peskov said in an interview with the liberal Russian Internet publication Slon.ru.