Putin critic, facing trial, says he should be president

Charismatic Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin, has said he wants to become president to "change the way Russia is ruled" as he prepares for a trial that could see him jailed.

Navalny said he expected to be convicted in the embezzlement trial that starts this month and which his supporters claim is politically motivated, but insisted he did not fear prison.

He also said that he would jail his top foes if he did come to power, an event which according to opinion polls remains a distant prospect.

"I want to be president," he told the opposition Dozhd (Rain) television channel in a late-night interview Thursday.

"I want to change life in the country. I want to change the way it is ruled.

"I want to do things so that the 140 million people who live in this country, who have oil and gas coming out of the ground, do not live in poverty or dark squalor and live normally like in a European country."

A Russian court announced Thursday that Navalny would go on trial on April 17 in the provincial city of Kirov in the case which concerns a business deal struck by the local government he advised in 2009.

If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in jail.

"I do not doubt that the verdict will be guilty," said Navalny, who vehemently maintains his innocence. He noted that under Russian law even a suspended jail sentence would disqualify him from running for office.

He said he did not fear "any kind of sentence" but added: "Like any normal person, I don't have the slightest desire to end up in jail."

He refused to predict what sentence he could receive, saying he did not have "any telepathic powers to enter Putin's brain".

Navalny vowed that should he win office he would ensure the criminal prosecution and jailing of his enemies including Putin and the president's tycoon acquaintances Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg.

Both men vehemently deny opposition allegations of improper business dealings.

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin said Navalny had consciously declared his ambition to be president with the looming trial in mind, to show the process as a "political persecution of a serious opponent of the authorities."

"Navalny is worried that he may indeed be jailed and he needs to draw attention to himself," said Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies.

Navalny, who won prominence with a blog investigating corruption and grew in stature during last year's political protests, faces an uphill political struggle.

A poll published Thursday by the Levada Centre said that just 37 percent of Russians knew who Navalny is, although this number is constantly rising. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of them said they would likely vote for him in an election.

Navalny acknowledged the ratings but said they would change drastically if he was given proper air time on federal television channels, which slavishly report the daily business of Putin and the Russian elite.

The protest movement that shook the Kremlin ahead of Putin's return for a third presidential term in May 2012 has dwindled, but the opposition is planning an extensive new action on May 6.

This will be the first anniversary of a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration that descended into clashes with the police. Over a dozen activists remain jailed and awaiting trial in the probe into the protest.

"People have to take to the streets to show how they feel about the politics in the country and say 'I do not agree'," Navalny said.

"When there are a large number of people then everything will change," he said.

Battling corruption remains Navalny's political trademark, and he took aim in the interview at First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who he said "understands that his only chance of not being arrested, to have his assets confiscated and not go on trial, is to hang onto power."

Shuvalov's wife, according to leaked information published in the British daily the Guardian this week, has a secret offshore entity in the British Virgin Islands.

He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing under Russian law.