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Navalny: ambitious crusader against Putin

Russia’s charismatic protest leader Alexei Navalny, sentenced Thursday to five years in a prison colony, has galvanised the opposition with lacerating attacks on President Vladimir Putin and the Russian elite.

Navalny is a new breed of Russian protest leader who wants to become a player in mainstream politics after building up a huge Internet following with sharply-written blogs and corruption exposes.

He emerged as the key figure in the mass opposition protests that rocked Russia in the winter of 2011-2012 ahead of Putin’s return for a third Kremlin term last May.

But his sentence in a controversial embezzlement case, which supporters denounced as ordered by the Kremlin to eliminate a dangerous foe, will disqualify him from taking part in politics.

His sometimes volcanic rhetoric inspired supporters in a way never seen before in post-Soviet Russia, provocatively declaring at a rally in December 2011 that he could muster enough protestors to take the Kremlin.

He has boldly stated an ambition to become president in 2018 polls and “change the country” and also registered to run for mayor of Moscow in September elections. But both ambitions will be in tatters if the verdict is confirmed on appeal.

Twice jailed briefly for administrative offences during the protests, he is no stranger to tough street talk and told a policeman who roughly arrested him last May that he would prosecute him afterwards.

Navalny has vowed that should he win power he will put in prison his enemies who tried to prosecute him, a pledge that has troubled some liberals who fear a cycle of revenge justice.

“I am sure that sooner or later I will have them jailed,” he told Moscow Echo radio in an interview ahead of the verdict hearing.

— ‘Party of swindlers and thieves’ —

Since Putin’s return for a third presidential term, Navalny has toned down his role in mass rallies and has turned his focus on exposing sleaze among top lawmakers in the ruling United Russia party.

Defiant to the last, just days before the verdict he published a detailed report accusing one of Putin’s closest confidants, the head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, of possessing a vast undeclared business and property portfolio.

It was Navalny who dreamt up the infectious slogan calling United Russia “the party of swindlers and thieves”, which it has not managed to shake off.

But held back by the lack of coverage on state television, he has yet to make an impact in the regions beyond his Moscow powerbase and many Russians have no clue who he is.

Even in the Russian capital, just eight percent said they would vote for him in the mayoral elections and just 32 percent were even aware of his candidacy.

Navalny, 37, began his anti-corruption crusade in 2007, buying up shares in state-controlled companies and grilling management at their annual general meetings.

Realising the power of the Internet well before the Russian elite, he published reports alleging corruption and mass embezzlement at giant enterprises on his Rospil website (Rospil.info), which built up a loyal following.

In his last Live Journal blog post before the verdict, he called on Russians to keep up the fight.

“Simply understand this: there’s no one else but you,” he wrote. “If you are reading this, then you are the resistance.”

— ‘Let’s change Russia’ —

Navalny makes astute use of the colloquial forms of the Russian language — where plays on words are hugely popular — in a way never dreamt of by any Kremlin official.

Seeking to present himself as an ordinary guy, Navalny lives with his wife Yulia — who has become an increasingly visible presence at his side — in a humdrum and otherwise unremarkable Moscow suburb called Maryino.

“Navalny is someone like you – he is not someone backed by oligarchs and bureaucrats,” says his campaign literature for the mayoral elections. “Let’s change Russia, starting with Moscow.”

Nevertheless, his views on ethnic relations trouble liberals, in particular in such a multi-cultural country like Russia which is home to an estimated 20 million Muslims.

He coined the slogan “it’s time to stop feeding” Russia’s volatile North Caucasus and has spoken at the ultra-right Russian Marches, behaviour that earlier led to his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party.