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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny goes on trial Wednesday on embezzlement charges carrying a maximum 10-year jail term but which he argues were ordered by President Vladimir Putin to eliminate a dangerous foe from politics.
The hearings in the provincial city of Kirov will be the latest trial in Russia slammed by Putin's opponents as a Soviet-style political set-up after the jailing of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and radical rock group Pussy Riot.
Navalny, a 36-year-old lawyer with piercing blue eyes and the confident ability to rally crowds, has rattled the Kremlin with his rapid emergence as tireless anti-corruption campaigner and a new kind of political leader.
He is charged with organising the misappropriation through a timber deal of more than 16 million rubles ($509,000) from the Kirov regional government that he advised in 2009.
An earlier probe into the same deal was closed last year. Navalny is to stand trial with his alleged accomplice, timber company owner, Pyotr Ofitserov.
Navalny, a Yale University world fellow in 2010, declared his ambition to stand for president in an interview this month with opposition TV Dozhd channel, saying he wanted to "change life in the country".
Analysts described Navalny's announcement as a clear bid to cast himself as a political prisoner should he be jailed.
Navalny insists the charge against him was fabricated on Putin's order. He told opposition New Times weekly that he believed Putin was "personally giving directions" in the case.
"Looking back, Navalny's trial will be seen by many as Putin's reprisal against his only real competitor," Alexei Zakharov of the Higher School of Economics wrote in an editorial in Vedomosti business daily.
The spokesman of the powerful Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, bluntly acknowledged last week that Navalny was specially targeted for investigation because of his repeated "teasing" of the Kremlin.
"If the suspect is going out of his way to attract attention, even teases the authorities... then the interest toward his past grows and the process of bringing it out to the open hastens," Markin told the pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily.
Navalny has said he expects to be found guilty but could either be jailed or receive a suspended sentence that would still prevent him ever standing for office.
He has not been detained but will be attending the trial in Kirov, 900 kilometres (560 miles) northeast of Moscow, at the Leninsky district's cramped 18th-century courthouse.
While polls show few Russians would back him in an election, Navalny's public profile has risen sharply and can only grow during the trial.
The Levada independent polling centre found last month that 37 percent of Russians knew who Navalny was, a low figure but still up from six percent two years ago.
Law enforcement authorities have opened several other financial probes into Navalny: one over fraud and money laundering with his brother and one concerning money he allegedly stole from a now defunct liberal party.
Yet he is only being treated as a witness in a huge case over crowd violence at an anti-Putin May 2012 rally over which 25 have been detained and one sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.
Navalny stung lawmakers this year by publishing exposes of senior figures in the United Russia ruling party, forcing two to step down. He also dreamed up a catchy slogan for ruling party United Russia: "the party of swindlers and thieves."
Intriguingly, Navalny has suggested authorities may not have wanted his case to go to a high-publicity trial, telling the New Times that he was given advance notice of the charge and the trial's start in an apparent hint to flee.
"The ideal for the authorities would be to scare Navalny, not to put him in jail -- for him to give up and leave the country," pro-opposition political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP.