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Putin critic rallies supporters ahead of Moscow polls

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's top critic Alexei Navalny prepared Friday to rouse supporters at the final rally of his fierce campaign for Moscow mayor before facing a Kremlin-backed incumbent in polls this weekend.

In a warning shot to the authorities, the charismatic leader of the Russian protest movement threatened protests if officials rigged Sunday's vote.

Navalny called on Muscovites to defy gloomy weather and cold drizzle and turn up at Moscow's centrally located Sakharova Avenue, where he first addressed huge crowds during protests against Putin's 13-year rule in winter 2011.

Prominent rockers were set to sing at the evening rally in support of the main opposition candidate, who has campaigned under the burden of a five-year sentence on fraud charges that he condemns as politically motivated.

"It would be good to see you tonight," 37-year-old Navalny wrote to his supporters on his blog.

"It's important to see each other before a run-off."

According to independent pollster Levada Centre, Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin is set to win the polls with a majority in the first round, while Navalny is expected to come second with 18 percent.

But Navalny, who has pledged to jail Putin and his allies if he one day becomes president, insists he will force the election into a run-off.

The opposition leader has also charged that the authorities are planning to rig the election, and said he may contest the results by urging his supporters to take to the streets.

"If there is an honest count, then everything will be fine," Navalny said in an interview with online portal gazeta.ru published Friday.

"If they steal our votes, we won't keep silent."

Muscovites will elect a mayor for the first time in a decade after the Kremlin first scrapped and then reinstated regional elections following the protests.

Navalny's candidacy has made the race the first genuinely competitive Russian election in years, with many observers seeing the polls as a vote of confidence in Putin's top-down power structure.

With the support of thousands of volunteers, 100 million rubles ($3 million, 2.3 million euros) in donations and countless meetings with everyday Muscovites, Navalny has run what many say is the first Western-style election campaign in Russia.

"This campaign is about how we ourselves define our place in politics," Navalny told gazeta.ru, urging people to vote and share their grievances with local authorities.

By contrast, his main rival Sobyanin, 55, has given few interviews and shunned television debates, focusing instead on sprucing up the capital before the vote.

Sobyanin will hold a rival rally, also on Friday, at a hulking Soviet-era sports complex. Four other candidates were also scheduled to meet their supporters.

In July, Navalny was sentenced to five years on fraud charges but then suddenly released in court pending appeal, leading some to say he has campaigned not so much for the mayoral post as for his freedom.

If he performs well in the polls, his jail term may be commuted to a suspended sentence, some analysts said.

Russia's most high-profile prisoner, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, called on Muscovites to vote for Navalny to help him evade jail.

"The moral choice is to try and help an innocent man avoid jail, which can for him, just like in my case, last forever," said a spokeswoman for Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and who has behind bars since 2003.

Despite his popularity, Navalny's nationalist-tinged rhetoric does not sit well with many among the liberal opposition.

Novelist Boris Akunin, whose historical detective novels are popular in the West, said this week he was not convinced that the blogger was well-suited for the role of the country's democratic leader.

But Akunin indicated he would support Navalny to send a powerful signal to the authorities that Russians desire change.

"For Russia no topic today is more important than the Moscow polls," he said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130906/putin-critic-rallies-supporters-ahead-moscow-polls