MOSCOW: Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s most prominent critic, faces a decisive moment in his confrontation with the Kremlin at a court hearing Tuesday that could see him jailed for more than two years.
The Yale-educated 44-year-old lawyer is banned from state television and was blocked from challenging Putin in the 2018 presidential election, but he has still managed to be a persistent thorn in the authorities’ side.
His call for demonstrations this month was answered by tens of thousands who rallied in cities spanning the country over two consecutive weekends, demanding Navalny’s release from prison and denouncing Putin’s rule.
Navalny urged his supporters to protest after being detained in a Moscow airport on arrival from Germany where he was treated for a poisoning attack that he insists was carried out by Russia’s security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB) on Putin’s orders.
He returned home in mid-January even though the prison service announced it would seek his arrest on charges of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement — allegations that could see him jailed for two and a half years.
He is being held in a high-security detention centre and also faces years of jail time in several other cases.
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 also grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric and coined phrases such as the “party of crooks and thieves” to slam the ruling United Russia party.
In 2011, Navalny led mass protests in Moscow over 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 then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a YouTube documentary, kick-starting a wave of nationwide demonstrations that were met with police violence and large-scale 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.
Navalny has faced a series of legal cases which supporters see as punishment for his activism.
In 2014, he was given a suspended sentence for embezzlement, and his brother Oleg, a co-defendant, was jailed for three-and-a-half years in a decision activists likened to a “hostage-taking”.
Before he flew back from Germany in January, papers were filed with a Moscow court asking for that suspended sentence to be converted into jail time, a move Navalny’s allies said was an attempt to block his return.
With the Kremlin tightly controlling the media, Navalny nonetheless 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.
While barred from mainstream politics, Navalny has sought to expose the wealth of Russia’s elites, broadcasting investigations to millions of Russians on social media and YouTube.
In his latest expose — released after his most recent arrest — he claimed a lavish Black Sea property worth $1.35 billion was built for Putin through a massive corruption scheme.
The report has been viewed more than 106 million times on YouTube and was seen as a driving force behind the latest demonstrations.
But despite tapping into discontent among a largely young urban middle class he is still far from a unifying opposition figure, and some have criticised his anti-immigrant nationalist stance.
He scored political success in local elections in 2019 and 2020, when pro-Putin parties suffered losses because of a “Smart Voting” plan Navalny put forward after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.
The tactic calls for voters to support the one candidate most likely to defeat the ruling party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates drop seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019.
Navalny’s offices have been raided repeatedly since, while his Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared a “foreign agent” and ordered to pay several large fines.