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Alexei Navalny: Kremlin critic leading Russian 'voter strike'

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Moscow (AFP)

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been jailed, attacked, banned from state television and is now barred from standing in presidential elections this year that Vladimir Putin is all but certain to win.

But the 41-year-old politician has vowed he will still play a role in the March election, calling for a "voters' strike" to expose a process he has denounced as sham democracy.

The Western-educated lawyer -- who announced his plans to run for the presidency a year ago though a fraud sentence officially makes him ineligible -- has won a young fanbase through viral videos exposing corruption among the Kremlin elite.

Navalny grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric during mass protests in 2011 sparked by vote-rigging allegations in parliamentary elections.

In front of crowds of tens of thousands, he coined phrases such as the "party of crooks and thieves" to slam the governing United Russia.

Two years later the father of two stood for Moscow mayor, coming second against a Kremlin-backed incumbent.

And in 2017 he accused Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a YouTube documentary, kickstarting a fresh wave of protests across the country that was met with police violence and mass arrests.

He was jailed three times last year for breaking rules on organising demonstrations and had to travel to Spain for surgery after one of several street attacks left him nearly blind in one eye.

- Brother jailed -

Navalny has faced a series of other legal cases, which supporters see as a sign the Kremlin is running scared.

In 2013 he was found guilty in an embezzlement case involving an allegedly crooked timber deal and given a five-year suspended sentence that disqualified him from standing for public office.

The European Court of Human Rights threw out the verdict but a retrial issued Navalny the same sentence.

He then had to spend months under house arrest and was often kept incommunicado over another graft case linked to French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

He was given a further suspended sentence, and his brother Oleg, a co-defendant, was jailed for three and a half years in a decision activists have compared to "hostage taking".

Navalny, who says he learnt about political campaigning from watching the US television series "House of Cards" and once listed Arnold Schwarzenegger among his personal heroes, last year toured Russia in an American-style pre-election campaign to rally his supporters.

But in an environment where the Kremlin tightly controls the media and political landscape, he remains a fringe figure for most Russians, who are more likely to believe the official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal.

Putin has refused to pronounce his name in public, instead referring to him as "the person you mentioned", among other euphemisms, when asked directly about the opposition leader.

- 'Authoritarian tendencies' -

While barred from mainstream politics, Navalny has kept trying to expose the lavish wealth of modern Russia's elites, broadcasting the findings of his investigations to his 2.3 million Twitter followers and to millions more on YouTube.

Trawling through land registries and the filings of offshore companies, Navalny and his team have helped lay bare the mansions and hidden fortunes of high-ranking officials.

Among Navalny's most eye-catching exposes have been details on the palatial homes of Putin's allies in Russia and abroad -- including one kitted out with a vast climate-controlled storage room for fur coats in the residence of Vladimir Yakunin, former chief of Russia's national railways.

But despite tapping into discontent among a largely young urban middle class he is far from a unifying opposition figure.

Liberals have criticised his anti-immigrant nationalist stance while an increasingly high-handed style has also ruffled feathers.

At protests in Moscow last year called after the politician's latest arrest, many demonstrators told AFP they had come out to denounce corruption, not because they wanted to see Navalny president.

"He has authoritarian tendencies, he cannot be called a kind person," Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group, later told AFP. "My fear is that with Navalny as president, little would change."

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