Navalny: ambitious crusader against Putin

Russia's charismatic protest leader Alexei Navalny, who goes on trial Wednesday in a decisive moment in his nascent political career, has galvanised the opposition with lacerating attacks on Vladimir Putin and the Russian elite.

Navalny is a new breed of Russian protest leader who has yet to fully embrace party politics but has built 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 in May last year.

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 see enough protestors to take the Kremlin.

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: "I'll get you jailed afterwards."

Navalny goes on trial on Wednesday in the northern city of Kirov, facing up to 10 years in jail if found guilty of organising misappropriation of funds in an timber deal when he advised the regional government.

Any kind of sentence, including a suspended term, would make him unable to stand for office. But the trial also represents a huge chance for Navalny to raise his profile in a country where polls show that less than half the population know who he is.

The timber case is only the first to go to trial of three criminal probes against Navalny, in a litany of legal headaches that he says are aimed at eliminating him from politics.

Navalny declared this month 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 in May 2012, 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.

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

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.

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 (Rospil.info), which built up a loyal following.

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

He 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.

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.

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 a slogan that "it's time to stop feeding" Russia's tense North Caucasus and has spoken at the 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.

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