Navalny: ambitious crusader against Putin faces trial

Russia's charismatic protest leader Alexei Navalny, who has openly declared his desire to replace President Vladimir Putin, has galvanised the opposition but now faces a trial on charges he says were dreamt up by the Kremlin.

The lawyer-turned-politician with clean-cut looks goes on trial on April 17 in the northern city of Kirov, facing up to 10 years in jail if found guilty of embezzlement in an obscure business deal over timber when he advised a regional government.

If he is found guilty in the timber case, it would give him a criminal record, making it impossible to stand for office, even if he is given only a suspended sentence.

The Russian authorities have bombarded him with criminal probes and repeatedly searched his home and office, making clear their intention of ending his political prospects.

The timber case is only the first to go to trial of three criminal probes against Navalny. He also faces charges of fraud and money laundering by him and his brother and a third probe concerning money he allegedly stole from a now defunct liberal party.

The powerful Investigative Committee -- the Russian equivalent of the FBI in the United States -- has even accused him obtaining his licence to practise law under false pretences.

Navalny late Thursday declared that he would like to become president and change the country, in an interview with pro-opposition television that showed off his American-style eloquence.

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.

In his latest successes, in March a senator, Vitaly Malkin, resigned after Navalny accused him of owning property abroad and holding Israeli citizenship. In February, the head of the lower house's ethics committee, Vladimir Pekhtin, quit after Navalny accused him of owning US property worth over $2 million.

Navalny says he believes the authorities chose to charge him with embezzlement rather than over his role in protests in order to undermine trust in his whistleblowing exposes.

Supporting this claim, Navalny is only being treated as a witness in a wide-ranging probe into crowd violence at an opposition rally last year that has seen 25 detained.

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

Taking advantage of the explosion in Internet debate over the last years and playing on public frustration with corruption, Navalny rapidly emerged as a new kind of opposition leader fully in touch with the changes in Russia's society.

Navalny, 36, a father of two living in a Moscow suburb, began his anti-corruption crusade in 2007, buying up shares at state-controlled companies and asking questions 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 (, which built up a loyal following.

His punchily written blog on Live Journal ( and Twitter account @navalny are also among Russia's most read.

He has gained a seat on the board of Russia's flagship airline Aeroflot as an independent director, and in March attended a reception for the airline's anniversary at the Kremlin.

Despite Navalny's preppy looks and a brief stint at Yale, he is a popular speaker at rallies with rousing rhetoric and his frequent police detentions at protests lend him street cred.

Nevertheless, his views on ethnic relations trouble many liberals.

He coined a slogan that "it's time to stop feeding" Russia's tense North Caucasus and has spoken at ultra-right Russian Marches.

He argues he simply opposes massive corruption in the troubled, mainly Muslim region. But he was earlier excluded from the liberal Yabloko party over his involvement in the Russian March.