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I want to be president: Russian opposition leader Navalny

  • In this photo taken Wedensday, March 13, 2013, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny speaks to journalists outside a courtroom in Moscow. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW: Charismatic Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin, declared his ambition to stand for president as he prepares for a trial that could see him jailed.

Navalny said he expected to be convicted in the embezzlement case, which his supporters claim is politically motivated, but insisted he did not fear prison.

He also said that he would jail his top foes in the unlikely event that he did come to power.

"I want to be president," he told the opposition Dozhd (Rain) television channel in a late-night interview Thursday.

"I want to change life in the country. I want to change the way it is ruled.

"I want to do things so that the 140 million people who live in this country, who have oil and gas coming out of the ground, do not live in poverty or dark squalor and live normally like in a European country."

A Russian court announced Thursday that Navalny would go on trial on April 17 in the provincial city of Kirov in the case, which concerns a business deal struck by the local government he advised in 2009.

If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in jail.

"I do not doubt that the verdict will be guilty," said Navalny, who vehemently maintains he is innocent. He noted that under Russian law even a suspended jail sentence would disqualify him for running for office.

He said he did not fear "any kind of sentence" but added: "Like any normal person, I don't have the slightest desire to end up in jail."

He refused to predict what sentence he could receive but appeared to claim that it would be ordered by Putin himself. "It's hard to say... I don't have any telepathic powers to enter Putin's brain."

Navalny vowed that should he win office he would ensure the criminal prosecution of his enemies including Putin and the president's tycoon acquaintances Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg.

Both men vehemently deny opposition allegations of improper business dealings.

"One day we will be victorious and we will have them jailed," said Navalny.

Nevertheless Navalny, who won prominence with a blog investigating corruption and grew in stature during last year's political protests, faces an uphill political struggle.

A poll published Thursday by the Levada Centre said that just 37 percent of Russians knew who Navalny is, although this number is constantly rising. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of them said they would likely vote for him in an election.

Navalny acknowledged the ratings but said they would change drastically if he was given proper air time on federal television channels, which slavishly report the daily business of Putin and the Russian elite.

He said if the pro-opposition Dozhd -- which is largely viewed through the Internet -- was shown nationwide then people's opinions would change.

"I think that if people knew more about my work they would change their attitude towards me and above all their attitude to the authorities," he added.

The protest movement that shook the Kremlin ahead of Putin's return for a third presidential term in May 2012 has now died down somewhat.

But the opposition is planning a new protest this Saturday and an even more extensive action on May 6, the first anniversary of a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration that descended into clashes with the police.

A dozen activists remain jailed and awaiting trial over their roles in that protest.

"People have to take to the streets to show how they feel about the politics in the country and say 'I do not agree'," said Navalny.

"When there is are large number of people then everything will change," he said.

Battling corruption remains Navalny's political trademark and he took aim at Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov whose wife, according to an investigation by the Guardian this week, has a secret offshore entity in the British Virgin Islands.

Shuvalov has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing under Russian law.

Navalny said: "Shuvalov understands that his only chance of not being arrested, to have his assets confiscated and not go on trial, is to hang onto power."

 
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