MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday questioned the ability of his top critic Alexei Navalny to be Moscow mayor and claimed that wherever the opposition leader goes, "some kind of problem follows".
Navalny, who has explicitly accused Putin and his allies of corruption, is seen as the main challenger to pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin in the elections for Moscow mayor on Sunday.
The anti-corruption campaigner was in July sentenced to five years in jail for embezzlement in a forestry deal but he was freed pending appeal and contends the trial was revenge for his daring to challenge the Kremlin.
"Getting on your high horse over the fashionable topic of fighting corruption does not mean being able to manage a city with 12 million people," Putin sniped in an interview with Russian Channel One television.
"And if someone talks about the fight against corruption then they have to be irreproachably clean themselves," he added.
Putin has only extremely rarely commented on Navalny, who has declared an ambition to stand for president and is seen by pro-opposition analysts as posing a significant challenge to his dominance of Russia in the long term.
In this interview, Putin appeared to go out of his way to avoid referring to Navalny by his name and instead described him as "this gentleman".
"Wherever this gentleman pops up, some kind of problem always follows," said Putin, referring to Navalny's brushes with the law.
"This is a clear fact".
Putin by contrast lavished praise on Sobyanin, a technocrat from Siberia with a dour and somewhat colourless image who worked for several years as his Kremlin chief of staff.
"He is a very experienced man, quiet, not very public. I like such people. He says less and does more," Putin said.
According to a poll by independent pollster Levada Centre, 58 percent of those who said they planned to vote in Moscow mayoral elections and have decided on their candidate said they would support Sobyanin while 18 percent backed Navalny.