Alexei Navalny: the man Putin fears

To Russia's anti-government movement, political activist Alexei Navalny is set to star in the biggest show-trial in years.

Kirov, a dilapidated provincial city of muddy potholed roads and crumbling buildings some 900km east of Moscow was famous in the Tsarist era as a place of exile for dissidents and revolutionaries, notes The Independent. Last week, another one rolled into town accompanied by a media circus.

Once described as "the man Vladimir Putin fears most", Alexei Navalny is about to stand trial on charges of corruption. Some believe it's the biggest show-trial in Russia since that of former Yukos boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The 36-year-old lawyer, anti-corruption campaigner and "leading voice of anti-Kremlin street protests" is accused of embezzling $500,000 from a state timber company in 2009, says The Guardian.

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Navalny maintains the charges are trumped up. But, "with less than 1% of Russian court cases ending in not-guilty verdicts", his conviction looks all but certain (see below).

Putin wants his most outspoken political opponent silenced at least temporarily. Navalny has made no bones about his "presidential aspirations" and his desire to see Putin jailed. He's a potentially lethal threat, says The Economist. "A new type of politician", who "doesn't come from within the system or have Soviet baggage", he has circumvented all the old rules, building up his following on social networks.

His branding of the ruling United Russia as "the party of crooks and thieves" quickly went viral on the net. No wonder the anxious Russian authorities have sought to portray Navalny as "an American stooge", says Time. After being recruited at Yale University (where he studied for six months in 2010), they maintain he was sent back to Russia to start a revolution.

Born in 1976, near Moscow, Navalny showed an early appetite for law, graduating from the Moscow's Friendship of the Peoples University in 1998. His rise in Russian politics began in 2008 when he starting blogging about malpractice and corruption at some of Russia's big state-controlled corporations. A key tactic was to become a minority shareholder and ask "awkward questions" about holes in finances and corrupt deals exposing many linked to Putin.

Navalny really came into his own in December 2011, when he led the wave of protests against election-rigging the biggest seen in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet critics say he blew his chances, failing to convert his support into a proper campaign fast enough.

"He held the pause for too long," a former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky told The Economist. It gave the government time to intimidate his supporters and dampen the mood for action.

Even if he doesn't get a prison term, a conviction would leave Navalny with no livelihood and few prospects as a politician. He accepts this with a shrug. "This is a war. I want to take away everything these guys have. So why be surprised that they want to take everything from me?"

"The less you know, the better you sleep"

He may be a figurehead with no clear ideology and few convictions, but Alexei Navalny has "political intuition" in spades, says The Economist. Deploying the power of his blog, which is read by around one million Russians, he has deftly manoeuvred between opposition nationalists and liberals, "lighting on the one issue that galvanises them both: corruption".

Navalny's main appeal isn't to the Russian intelligentsia, but to "the urban, mobile middle class, small-time entrepreneurs and managers in private firms, who flourished in the 1990s". Many voted for Putin in 2000, but have since become "disenchanted and angry" with the overweaning power of the state.

"If anyone can free Russia" from the "matrix" of Putin, "Navalny is clearly The One," says Vladimir Frolov in The Moscow Times. But while he has star power, some find his nationalistic streak disturbing, says Miriam Elder in The Observer. And, for all the conviction of his supporters ("The case against Navalny is a case against us all", says a journalist on the financial daily, Vedomosti), his appeal to the population outside the big cities is a matter of conjecture.

Polls suggest that, over the past two years, Navalny's name-recognition has grown from 6% to 37%. But judging by the apathetic reception of the citizens of Kirov this week, "out in the provinces he is either unknown" or considered too hot to handle, says Shaun Walker in The Independent. As one local put it: "The less you know, the better you sleep."

That may change if Navalny's trial becomes a sensation. With the verdict likely a foregone conclusion, everything hinges on the sentence, says Simon Shuster in Time.

As Izvestia, a Russian newspaper, has pointed out, sending Navalny to a labour camp "could turn him into Russia's version of Nelson Mandela". "If Navalny gets imprisoned, Russia will get onto a track that will take it to the last station: Revolution Square", predicts the opposition writer Boris Akunin. No wonder all eyes are on Kirov.