Anna Malpas –
ِِAline of supporters wound round the room to snap a selfie with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who looked exhausted but summoned up a smile and hug for each one.
The 41-year-old, whose anti-corruption videos have needled the country’s most powerful and drawn a new generation into politics, is bidding to stand in elections against President Vladimir Putin next year.
While Putin has yet to confirm his candidacy for the March 2018 polls, chief critic Navalny is already on a whistlestop tour of Russia, opening campaign offices and trying to collect the 300,000 signatures needed to enter the race — despite doubts he’ll be allowed to stand.
In the city of Tver on the Volga River, 160 km from Moscow, Navalny met several hundred supporters.
“We can win these elections,” he told the crowd. “We can win because the majority are for us.”
Navalny’s right eye was still half-closed as he spoke. He is recovering after an assailant threw green dye in his face in April, the latest in a series of physical attacks.
He had medical treatment in Spain and now seems to have security. Two large men stood nearby as Navalny spoke, insisting he will “say obvious banal things, but not be afraid and say them out loud”.
Since rising to prominence with his fiery speeches protesting Putin’s third term in power in 2012, Navalny has cemented his place as Russia’s top opposition leader.
But the populist politician faces overwhelming odds in his David and Goliath struggle against the Kremlin and stands almost no chance of ousting Putin.
Shown on state television only in a negative light, Navalny uses YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to get his message out, as well as public speaking, at which the lawyer excels. He has faced constant hurdles and harassment as he pushes for the presidency — including repeated assaults like the one that damaged his eye.
Earlier this year he was handed a suspended sentence on corruption charges that could legally bar him from running. “We can only force them to register me,” he said.
In the meantime he is causing serious headaches for the government.
In March he drew thousands onto the streets in the biggest wave of protests in years with an online video accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption that was viewed over 22 million times.
But his views have troubled some liberals.
Controversially, he has appeared at rallies with neo-Nazis in the past, and vowed to restrict immigration from mainly Muslim ex-Soviet Central Asia. — AFP