Page 2 of 2 Previous
The confusion apparently resulted from law-enforcement agencies winning Putin's approval for a five-year prison term just as Sobyanin was lobbying for a delayed sentence, Belkovsky said. The courts are widely considered to be at Putin's disposal.
"They won the approval for two alternative decisions, so they ended up with that compromise: Navalny gets his five-year sentence but walks free until the election," Belkovsky said.
He likened the confusion to the political infighting that engulfed the Kremlin in the waning years of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
"The government looks increasingly unbalanced," he said. "The system is destabilizing itself from within. Its prestige has suffered a heavy blow."
Gleb Pavlovsky, a one-time Kremlin political consultant, also attributed the about-face to Kremlin infighting.
"It's a war of groups pursuing different strategies," Pavlovsky was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency, adding that one group wants the mayoral election to be held "with the maximum legitimacy" while another one wants to keep Navalny in jail.
He said that Navalny has aptly used rifts in the Kremlin to raise his profile. "He stepped into the field where a fight is going on, and he's using it in his interests," Pavlovsky said.
Asked if Navalny could be pardoned, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that he would have to plead guilty first. He refused to comment on the verdict and Navalny's release from custody.
Outside court, Navalny was greeted by his supporters, with one of them offering him blini — Russian pancakes — a sarcastic play on the name of the judge who sentenced him, Sergei Blinov.
The unsanctioned protest in Moscow looked relatively small compared with the massive anti-Putin demonstrations that attracted more than 100,000 in fall 2011 and at the beginning of 2012. But unlike those protests, which were allowed by the authorities, Thursday's participants braved the threat of heavy fines and prison sentences.
The rally briefly blocked traffic on a busy Moscow street as demonstrators shouted, "This city is ours!" More than 200 people were briefly detained, and about a half of them are expected to face fines.
More than 50 people also were detained briefly in St. Petersburg, and smaller rallies were held in several other cities Thursday.
Navalny was found guilty of heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from the state-owned company Kirovles in 2009.
The charges against Navalny date back to when he worked as an unpaid adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov, 760 kilometers (470 miles) east of Moscow.
The defense said co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov's company bought the timber from Kirovles for 14 million rubles and sold it for 16 million rubles in a regular commercial deal. Navalny's lawyers presented invoices proving the transactions.
Sentencing Navalny was the latest move in a multipronged crackdown on dissent that followed Putin's inauguration, including arrests of opposition activists and repressive legislation that sharply increased fines for participants in unsanctioned protests and imposed tough restrictions on nongovernment organizations.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Jim Heintz contributed to this report.