By Timothy Heritage and Kiryl Sukhotski
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny accused Vladimir Putin on Monday of orchestrating a trial against him on theft charges, and said he was sure he would be found guilty in a campaign to crush the opposition.
The 36-year-old anti-corruption blogger, who emerged as the president's most powerful opponent during protests that began in December 2011, goes on trial in the city of Kirov on Wednesday on what he says are trumped-up charges.
Putin's opponents have compared the trial with that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon convicted in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion in a move which critics say was intended by the president to discourage others from taking him on.
Navalny dismissed the accusations against him as "absurd" but said his fate had already been determined. "I'm absolutely sure it will end in a guilty verdict," he said in an interview at his cramped and sparsely furnished Moscow office, from where he campaigns against corruption among state firms and officials.
"They've already decided everything, including the sentence. They're interested in some kind of public relations, to say on television that the man who for years has been accusing us of corruption is corrupt himself. By them, I mean Putin."
As if to underline his point, he sat at a desk in front of a laptop with a sticker on it showing Putin's face in the letter O of "vor", the Russian word for thief.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined comment. However, he has denied the president exploited weaknesses in the justice system to stifle opposition since he returned to the Kremlin last May after four years as premier.
Navalny faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of leading an organised group accused of stealing 16 million roubles (335,122 pounds) from a timber firm which he was advising while working for the Kirov regional governor in 2009.
He believes it is now merely a question of whether he goes to jail or receives a suspended sentence in the trial in Kirov, about 900 km (600 miles) northeast of Moscow.
THE RISKS OF OPPOSITION POLITICS
Despite the threat of jail, Navalny appeared calm, often smiling wryly and showing little emotion. He seemed resigned to going to jail, describing it as a risk he had known about when he started criticising the authorities in his blogs.
"If you get into opposition politics, they can put you in jail. If you take on corruption, the easiest thing for these people is to put you in jail," he said.
Navalny said the allegations against him were part of a Kremlin strategy to intimidate critics and stifle protests.
"Putin and his inner circle have realised that they have no levers left at their disposal to keep control of the political system except repression," he said.
"They see the decline in (Putin's) ratings and the growing discontent, and the protests continue ... They will crush anyone who objects to Putin being president for life."
A trained lawyer, Navalny has campaigned since 2007 against corruption by state officials and firms but it was the protests that began 16 months ago over alleged fraud in a parliamentary election which confirmed him as an opposition leader.
He was jailed for 15 days for his role in one of the first demonstrations in December 2011 and emerged as the most dynamic speaker at rallies which developed into the biggest protests since the former KGB spy came to power 13 years ago.
Clean cut and articulate, Navalny harnessed a mood change among urban youth against Putin's political domination. His description of the ruling party as "swindlers and thieves" struck a chord with Russians from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea.
He is a particular threat for Putin because of his powers as a public speaker and his large following online, although it is not clear how much support he has outside the big cities and the anti-Putin protests have dwindled since their height.
DANGER FOR PUTIN?
The trial is one of the most high-profile cases against a Putin opponent since he was first elected president in 2000 and set about restoring order after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Boris Yeltsin's rule.
The danger for Putin is that Navalny's popularity and fame could increase if he is jailed, as happened with Khodorkovsky.
"The more Navalny is tormented (by the Kremlin), the greater the number of people ready to give him their support. And the more Navalny is tormented, the more he is seen as an opposition leader," said political analyst Yulia Latynina.
Efforts by state-backed media to portray him as an extremist with nationalist tendencies - which he denies despite some anti-immigration rhetoric at the start of his political career - have failed to dent his appeal among Russia's emerging middle class.
He says that regardless of his own fate, the state of Russia's economy, heavily dependent on energy exports, has declined to such an extent that Putin can no longer rely on economic handouts such as pay rises to keep a lid on discontent.
"The effect of petrodollars has stopped working in terms of political stability. The propaganda machine that has been used so actively over the last few years has reached a peak. Internet penetration is increasing and in this sense, time and technology are working in our favour," he said.
(editing by David Stamp)