Putin critic rallies supporters ahead of Moscow polls

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

Defying chilly autumn weather and drizzling rain, several thousand turned up for the late-night event, where prominent rockers belted out songs from the stage.

"You are standing here under the rain -- that means things are changing," Navalny told supporters huddling under their umbrellas.

"We're together, the victory will be ours," Navalny said at Moscow's centrally located Sakharova Avenue, where he first addressed huge crowds during protests against Putin's 13-year rule in winter 2011.

"If I had big arms, I would embrace you all."

On Sunday 37-year-old Navalny, who has campaigned under the burden of a five-year sentence on fraud charges he condemns as politically motivated, faces Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin.

He is not expected to win, but many said they would vote for him to send a signal to the authorities that they want political change.

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 policies.

"He will not win this time, but the point of his campaign is to launch a political process," Irina Cherkasova, 50, said at the rally.

"These polls are special because the politics of trust is coming back into Russia," added Alexei Bodunov, a volunteer from the eastern Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

In a warning shot to the authorities, the charismatic anti-corruption activist threatened protests earlier Friday if officials rigged Sunday's vote.

-- 'If they steal votes, we won't keep silent'

According to independent pollsters the Levada Centre, 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 if he one day becomes president, insists he will force the election into a run-off.

The opposition leader has said the authorities are planning to rig the election, and threatened to contest the results by staging protests.

"If they steal our votes, we won't keep silent," Navalny said in an interview with online portal gazeta.ru.

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

The blogger, who hopes to translate the energy of past streets protests into success at the ballot box, says he was inspired by US political television series like the Wire and House of Cards.

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

On Friday, Sobyanin, who is expected to be re-elected, held a rival rally at a hulking Soviet-era sports complex where more than 27,000 people turned up, Moscow police said.

By contrast, police put the turnout at Navalny's event at around 2,000 but organisers said some 10,000-15,000 showed up.

In July, Navalny was sentenced to five years on fraud charges but then suddenly released pending an 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 in which four other candidates will also run, 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 Khodorkovsky through a spokeswoman.

Once Russia's richest man, he has been behind bars since 2003.

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.