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MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin presented his vision for modernizing Russia on Saturday, while some of his challengers in next March's presidential vote were formally nominated for the race.
Putin is running as an independent candidate, keeping a distance from the top Kremlin party, United Russia, which consists mostly of officials and has been dogged by corruption allegations against some of its top members.
Despite that, Putin showed up Saturday at United Russia's congress to speak about his future goals. He pledged to offer broader incentives for business, fight corruption and pour extra resources into the underfunded health care and education system.
"Russia is a country with a 1,000-year history, but we mustn't treat her like our grandmother, just giving her pills to relieve her pain," he said in a speech televised live. "We must make Russia young, aimed into the future."
With his approval ratings topping 80 percent, the 65-year-old Putin is set to easily win another six-year term in the March 18 vote.
His most visible opponent, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, is barred from the race by an embezzlement conviction he calls politically motivated. Nevertheless, the 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has run a yearlong grass-roots campaign and staged waves of rallies to push the Kremlin to let him run.
Navalny has threatened to organize a campaign for boycotting the vote, which would be an embarrassment to the Kremlin, which is worried about voter apathy and focused on boosting turnout to make Putin's victory more impressive.
The involvement of Ksenia Sobchak, a sharp-tongued 36-year-old star TV host, could raise public interest in the race. While Sobchak has denied colluding with the Kremlin, her participation could weaken Navalny and attract younger voters to the polls.
Sobchak, who was formally nominated for the race Saturday by a liberal party, the Civic Initiative, argued that the opposition shouldn't try to defy the authorities with unsanctioned demonstrations.
Her remarks were a clear riposte to Navalny, who has encouraged his supporters to hold unauthorized protests.
"I stand for peaceful protests, I'm sure that only peaceful protests can lead to changes in our country," Sobchak said. "It's wrong to deliberately exacerbate the situation and push people under police clubs."
Sobchak has criticized the Kremlin's policies and called for democratic changes, but she has steered clear of any personal criticism of Putin, who in the 1990s served as a deputy to Sobchak's late father, who was the mayor of St. Petersburg.
Sobchak's criticism of Russia's annexation of Crimea and her calls for more liberal economic policies and broader freedoms, including gay marriage, have helped her gain traction with reform-minded voters.
"If church marriages are allowed, civil gay marriages should also be permitted," she said Saturday.
The Communists have decided to field a fresh candidate instead of their chief Gennady Zyuganov, a fixture of past campaigns. They nominated 57-year-old Pavel Grudinin, the director of a successful strawberry farm near Moscow.
Grudinin cast his farm as a model for Russia, pointing at generous social benefits enjoyed by his workers.
Other veterans of past elections — liberal Grigory Yavlinsky and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky — are also running.
Naira Davlashyan in Moscow contributed to this report.