Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he has still not decided whether he will run for reelection next year.
"Not only have I not decided who I will run against, I have not decided whether I will run at all," Putin said during an international energy conference in Moscow.
It's a statement Russians have heard before from the Kremlin leader, who is widely expected to run — and win — in the March election. In July, Putin made a similar comment in a wide-ranging interview with youths in the Black Sea city of Sochi. Putin has in the past waited until the last minute to officially announced his reelection bids.
Putin has been president or prime minister since 1999, maintaining his power by in effect silencing independent media and placing Kremlin-controlled restrictions on election laws.
The presidential election campaign will be officially announced by the government sometime in late November or early December, at which point he will announce whether he would seek another six-year term, Putin said.
Should Putin run — and most political observers believe he will — the big question will be whom the Kremlin will allow to run against him.
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and fierce Putin critic whose anti-corruption movement and protests have become a thorn in the Kremlin's side, was sentenced Monday to 20 days in jail for repeated violations of laws against organizing public demonstrations.
Navalny has been touring the country in what he says are campaign stops for his 2018 presidential bid. The Central Election Committee has said his jail time makes him ineligible to run. Navalny has denounced the convictions as politically motivated.
Even if the Kremlin allows him to run, Navalny has no chance of beating the widely popular Putin, whose approval ratings consistently hover above 80%. State media ignore Navalny completely, meaning his name recognition outside the cosmopolitan centers of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities remains low.
Monday's sentencing keeps Navalny from participating in a rally planned in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, for Saturday. Navalny on Wednesday called for another round of nationwide protest on that day in his absence.
The demonstrations would be "a birthday present" for Putin, who turns 65 that day, Navalny said in a video address on his YouTube channel Tuesday.
The Kremlin has warned Navanly supporters against participating in any unsanctioned demonstrations. The past two Navalny-inspired events, in March and June, resulted in thousands of arrests, most notably of his younger supporters and avid followers of his YouTube addresses denouncing what he says is government-sponsored corruption.
Ayres is a special correspondent.