Protests pitch Russian blogger against Putin

At Saturday’s protests, the biggest of Putin’s 12-year rule,  some of the loudest cheers were for the anti-corruption  campaigner, who has warned Russia’s paramount leader he could  face an Arab Spring-style revolt.

Alexei Navalny

Though he was absent from the rallies, sitting in jail   since a protest last week against vote-rigging in the Dec. 4  parliamentary election, Navalny is in the vanguard of a mood  change among Russia’s urban youth against Putin’s rule.

“You cannot beat up and arrest hundreds of thousands or  millions,” Navalny said in a statement from jail that was read  out to demonstrators on Saturday. “We are not cattle or slaves.

“We have a voice and we have the strength to defend it.”

The message, issued while he serves out a 15-day sentence  for obstructing police during a demonstration, was also posted  on his blog at .

Navalny represents a new, Internet-savvy generation and is  seen as a potential threat to Putin, even though the prime  minister and former KGB spy runs a tightly controlled political  system that he has crafted since his rise to power in 1999.

Asked about his own ambitions during an interview with  Reuters in May, Navalny winced but his blue eyes twinkled: “I  would like to be president,” he said.

“But there are no elections in Russia.”

With a courage that some would say borders on folly,   Navalny dismissed the dangers of challenging Putin: “That’s the  difference between me and you: you are afraid and I am not  afraid,” he said.

“I realise there is danger, but why should I be afraid?”
He has no political party but Navalny has become possibly  Russia’s most popular political blogger by using his computer  keyboard to illustrate the absurdities of a corrupt bureaucracy.

Yet his character and politics are also more complex – some  might call them contradictory – than admiring Western liberals  might expect of a Yale-educated lawyer who has taken to buying  small stakes in some of Russia’s biggest companies in order to   demand greater transparency for shareholders, and the public.

While his time in the United States on a fellowship at Yale  has forced him into denying accusations from Putin supporters  that he is a CIA plant, his hostile views on Muslim and Asian  migration into Russia’s Slavic heartland have also seen him  obliged to rebuff suggestions that he has “fascist” tendencies.

An outspoken Russian nationalist, he was expelled from a  liberal opposition party and promises to crack down on  immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

His role, never fully explained, in a brawl, and alleged air  pistol shooting, in 2007, adds to an edgy air of mystery around  the tall, lean attorney who sets off chiseled Slavic cheekbones  and piercing blue eyes with a marked taste for argyle-pattern  sweaters and jeans.

Shooting to prominence by challenging state companies such  as pipeline operator Transneft to explain millions of dollars of  unorthodox payments, Navalny coined the defining slogan of the  parliamentary election campaign by branding Putin’s ruling party  a collection of “swindlers and thieves”.

The United Russia party confused its response to the  accusation, first with silence, then by outrage and threats and  then by trying to address the slur as it began to roll off the  tongues of Russians with alarming regularity.

As appealing to many Russians as bashing bankers is for some  voters in the West, Navalny’s phrase struck a chord with  millions disgusted by the ostentatious wealth of Moscow’s elite.

Navalny’s words were draped on a banner over a bridge in  central Moscow on Saturday when tens of thousands of people came  to protest against vote-rigging. Hundreds turned to the Kremlin  at one point, chanting “swindlers and thieves”.

“Navalny is the only possible leader I see,” a Moscow-based  Western banker said of Russia’s fragmented opposition.

“He has fire in those blue eyes of his.”

He has also challenged Putin and the Russian establishment  directly, accusing the 59-yeard-old leader of ruling a venal  elite as “chairman of the board of Russia Inc”.

Putin’s spokesman has denied as “simply ridiculous” charges  made by U.S. diplomats that Putin rules Russia by allowing an  upper crust of corrupt officials and spies to siphon off cash  from the world’s biggest energy producer.

Opinion polls show Putin remains by far the most popular  politician in Russia, and powerful businessmen say he is the  ultimate arbiter between the competing clans of associates which  own swathes of its industry and vast natural resources.

Though Navalny is nowhere near Putin in terms of popularity,  he is tipped as a potential future leader by foreign diplomats.  He has even earned the grudging respect of some Kremlin allies  by mobilising a deeply divided and wilting opposition.
“He is a clever lad,” said one source close to the Kremlin.  “He is a talented politician.”

Some of his critics even charge that he is the creature of  the Kremlin spin doctors, though he laughs off such theories as  paranoia. But he is less happy to speak about who funds his  activities, saying merely that they do not seek publicity.

Some protesters in Moscow on Saturday held magazine covers  bearing a picture of Navalny, who appeals to many of the ‘IKEA  generation’ – middle-class young Russians who furnish their  apartments with the Swedish mass retailer’s wares.

Made prosperous enough to dabble in the delights of Western  consumerism during the boom years of Putin’s 2000-08 presidency,  many young, urban Russians are fatigued by perceptions of their  country’s stagnation and endemic corruption.

Navalny has been able to use satire to mobilise a growing  sense of disenchantment with Putin’s elite while also appealing  to nationalists – otherwise a natural support base for Putin –  who complain that he has betrayed Russians by letting in too  many non-Slavic migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

But Navalny’s new prominence also poses a challenges: can he  really unite a disparate protest movement which includes  investment bankers, nationalists, socialists, devout Russian  Orthodox Christians and free-market liberals?

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