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Alexei Navalny: The lawyer standing up to Russia's President Vladimir Putin

File photo of Alexei Navalny. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Moscow, Russia Jul 30, 2019, 06.32 PM (IST)

A charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny has been Russia's leading opposition politician for around a decade, determined to challenge Vladimir Putin's grip on power despite frequent prison stays and even damage to his health.

The Yale-educated 43-year-old lawyer has been banned from state television and was barred from challenging Putin in a presidential election last year.

He has often been jailed and physically attacked, but has vowed to press ahead with his campaign to change Russia for the better.

Navalny has won a young fan base through viral videos exposing corruption among the elites and has more than two million followers on Twitter.

He has grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric and coined phrases such as the "party of crooks and thieves" to slam the ruling party United Russia.

In 2011, the anti-corruption blogger led mass protests when tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow to protest against vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.

Two years later the father of two stood for Moscow mayor, coming second against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.

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

The same year he 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 legal cases, which supporters see as punishment for his activism.

In 2013, he was found guilty in an embezzlement case involving a 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.

In 2014, he was given another suspended sentence, and his brother Oleg, a co-defendant, was jailed for three and a half years in a decision activist have compared to "hostage-taking".

Navalny has said he learned about political campaigning from watching the US television series "House of Cards" and once listed Hollywood actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger among his heroes.

Navalny toured Russia ahead of the 2018 presidential election in an American-style campaign to rally his supporters.

But with the Kremlin tightly controlling the media, he remains a fringe figure for many Russians, who are exposed to the official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal. 

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

Eye-catching exposes
 
While barred from mainstream politics, Navalny has kept trying to expose the lavish wealth of Russia's elites, broadcasting the findings of his investigations to millions of Russians on social media and 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 and some have criticised his anti-immigrant nationalist stance.

Several members of Navalny's team have fought hard to get on the ballot for Moscow parliament elections in September, each managing to collect roughly 5,000 signatures from supporters. They have been barred from running, along with other pro-Kremlin politicians.

Last week Navalny was jailed for calling an unauthorised protest over the ban and on Sunday he was rushed to a hospital. His lawyer and doctor said he had been "poisoned."
 

Story highlights

Navalny toured Russia ahead of the 2018 presidential election in an American-style campaign to rally his supporters.