Tens of thousands of Russians are protesting alleged voter fraud after parliamentary elections, and President Vladimir Putin is their main target. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.
MOSCOW - If Vladimir Putin is to face a Russian rebellion, its spiritual leader may be a 35-year-old blogger named Alexei Navalny.
Alexey Sazonov / AFP - Getty Images
Alexei Navalny takes part in an opposition rally in central Moscow on Dec. 5.
At Saturday's protests, the biggest of Putin's 12-year rule, some of the loudest cheers were for the anti-corruption campaigner, who has warned Russia's paramount leader he could face an Arab Spring-style revolt.
Though he was absent from the rallies, sitting in jail since a protest last week against vote-rigging in the December 4 parliamentary election, Navalny is in the vanguard of a mood change among Russia's urban youth against Putin's rule.
"You cannot beat up and arrest hundreds of thousands or millions," Navalny said in a statement from jail that was read out to demonstrators on Saturday. "We are not cattle or slaves.
"We have a voice and we have the strength to defend it."
The message, issued while he serves out a 15-day sentence for obstructing police during a demonstration, was also posted on his blog.
Navalny represents a new, Internet-savvy generation and is seen as a potential threat to Putin, even though the prime minister and former KGB spy runs a tightly controlled political system that he has crafted since his rise to power in 1999.
Asked about his own ambitions during an interview with Reuters in May, Navalny winced but his blue eyes twinkled: "I would like to be president," he said.
"But there are no elections in Russia."
With a courage that some would say borders on folly, Navalny dismissed the dangers of challenging Putin: "That's the difference between me and you: you are afraid and I am not afraid," he said.
"I realize there is danger, but why should I be afraid?"
He has no political party but Navalny has become possibly Russia's most popular political blogger by using his computer keyboard to illustrate the absurdities of a corrupt bureaucracy.
Yet his character and politics are also more complex - some might call them contradictory - than admiring Western liberals might expect of a Yale-educated lawyer who has taken to buying small stakes in some of Russia's biggest companies in order to demand greater transparency for shareholders, and the public.
While his time in the United States on a fellowship at Yale has forced him into denying accusations from Putin supporters that he is a CIA plant, his hostile views on Muslim and Asian migration into Russia's Slavic heartland have also seen him obliged to rebuff suggestions that he has "fascist" tendencies.
An outspoken Russian nationalist, he was expelled from a liberal opposition party and promises to crack down on immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
His role, never fully explained, in a brawl, and alleged air pistol shooting, in 2007, adds to an edgy air of mystery around the tall, lean attorney who sets off chiseled Slavic cheekbones and piercing blue eyes with a marked taste for argyle-pattern sweaters and jeans.
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