Russia protest leader confronts Kremlin under shadow of jail

"Hi, my name is Alexei Navalny and I'm 37," the charismatic anti-Kremlin leader said as he bounded onto stage to campaign for Moscow mayor, a remarkable feat given his looming prison camp term.

The Russian lawyer, protest leader and thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin is campaigning for the September 8 polls, undeterred by the fact that he could be sent back to prison for five years over an embezzlement conviction.

When one potential voter asked how he could stand as mayor with a jail sentence looming, the dynamic father-of-two rolled up his sleeves and his eyes gleamed.

"Do I look like a person who's in jail?" he asked defiantly.

"No!" the crowd shouted back.

Opinion polls show Navalny struggling to break into double figures in his challenge to incumbent mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist who served as the Russian strongman's chief of staff.

Yet the candidacy of a man who is fiercely critical of Putin and able to rouse crowds with fiery rhetoric is a revolution in Russian politics which has become used to tame elections.

The sheer fact that Navalny is able to campaign is extraordinary -- last month he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in a widely disputed decision.

Then a higher court freed him after one night in prison in the northern city of Kirov, citing his candidacy and pending appeal, as protesters rallied outside the Kremlin walls in Moscow.

Navalny returned to Moscow by train a hero, in a homecoming that some commentators likened to Vladimir Lenin's return to Saint Petersburg by rail in 1917 after years in exile.

"They can't put a person in jail who is supported by millions of people!" Navalny told his supporters at the election meeting in Moscow.

Yet theoretically, he will be sent back to prison if his conviction, which he denounces as a political set-up, is confirmed on appeal.

--- 'Setting the rules of the game' ---

Navalny, the first Russian politician to fully exploit the Internet and social networks, rose to prominence with a blog exposing high-level corruption.

When the first serious protests broke out against Putin's rule in the winter of 2011, Navalny emerged as a natural leader and was able to connect with Internet-savvy middle-class Russians.

Shortly before his conviction, he bluntly stated his ambition to stand in 2018 presidential elections and even vowed to have the current Russian elite jailed for corruption.

A poll by the independent Levada Centre in July showed that Sobyanin was still on course for a landslide victory, with Navalny set to garner just eight percent. But Navalny and his campaign team are working flat-out to change this.

He has red balloons with his name printed on them, a central campaign office with volunteers tapping on laptops and even a personal photographer.

But what makes Navalny's campaign really stand out is his readiness to speak on the streets, dealing with hecklers, drunks and toddlers popping his balloons mid-speech.

In Russia it is almost unknown for a politician to face the rough-and-tumble of the hustings. Navalny, however, holds five meetings in different parts of Moscow per day over weekends and three on weekdays, each lasting around 40 minutes.

Tall with piercing blue eyes, Navalny wears a uniform of jeans and well-pressed shirts, combined with a white plastic "For Navalny" wristband.

He stresses he is "an ordinary Muscovite, just like you," who worries about the 9,500 ruble ($290) monthly utility bill for his apartment in a concrete prefab in the suburb of Maryino, shared with his wife Yulia and their son and daughter, aged five and 11.

As a mayoral candidate he has toned down the rhetoric of the mass protest rallies -- where he chanted "We are the authorities!", "Putin is a thief!" and even once said his supporters could storm the Kremlin.

But he has kept to the mantra that made him famous -- the fight against corruption. He promises to fire the "15 percent" of corrupt officials, hire Western consultants and spend Moscow's massive budget of more than $50 billion effectively.

"I see my path as mayor as simply setting the right rules for the game," he said.

Yet his rhetoric turns populist when he brings up the problem of illegal immigrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia, suggesting a visa regime to stop so many migrants coming and transparent work contracts to make the jobs attractive to locals.

--- 'He doesn't just speak but acts' ---

Rather than publicising Navalny's speaking schedule online, his campaigners distribute leaflets at the venues in what his team says is a deliberate strategy to prove he has support among ordinary people, not just trendy Twitter users.

He is a magnetic speaker and his rallies often snag passers-by who stop to listen.

"All his suggestions are realistic and doable," said one pensioner, Tatyana Isakova.

"I can see that this person doesn't just speak but acts too. Of course I support him," said university lecturer Anna Moiseyeva.

But not everyone is won over. Engineering graduate student Nikolai Bogachyov, 22, ripped Navalny's campaign newspaper into tiny pieces.

"He does not offer anything interesting as mayor," he said, adding that he believed Navalny was "supported by foreign comrades".

"Navalny does not offer any constructive or positive ideas. His politics are destructive," he said.