Russia's Navalny urges rallies against 'pseudo-elections'
Moscow: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters geared up for a showdown with authorities on Sunday as Vladimir Putin's top enemy urged nationwide rallies to protest "pseudo-elections".
The 41-year-old charismatic politician called on Russians across the country to defy authorities and stage rallies calling for an active boycott of March 18 presidential elections despite the prospect of mass arrests.
Ratcheting up tensions, Navalny urged Russians to show up at unsanctioned rallies in the centre of Moscow and Saint Petersburg with placards and leaflets, a move that will likely lead to confrontations with police.
Rallies were planned in more than 100 cities across the country. In most cities, permission to stage rallies had been received, Navalny said.
"Your life is at stake," he told supporters in a video address.
"How many more years do you want to live with these thieves, bigots and perverts in power? We've already endured this for 18 years."
Navalny also warned that authorities planned to clamp down on his youngest supporters, tweeting a screenshot of a text message sent around ahead of the rallies. The message urged parents to make sure their children do not attend the Sunday protests. "Raids are possible," it said. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that unsanctioned rallies would lead to "certain consequences", a thinly-veiled promise of punishment.
Ahead of the rallies, police raided Navalny's Moscow headquarters and regional campaign offices and detained members of his staff and supporters. Navalny -- seen as the only politician with enough stamina to take on Putin -- has built a robust protest movement despite constant police harassment, tapping into the anger of a younger generation yearning for change.
He says the upcoming election will be little more than a coronation of Putin who is widely expected to win a fourth presidential term and extend his Kremlin power until 2024.
Last year Navalny mounted a forceful bid to run for president but officials ruled him ineligible due to a criminal conviction which he says is politically motivated.
Navalny has said he would use the full force of his campaign -- including more than 200,000 volunteers -- to organise "voters' strikes" and encourage Russians to stay away from polling stations on election day.
After 18 years of leadership -- both as president and prime minister -- Putin fatigue is spreading across the country.
The Kremlin's biggest headache is the possibility of a low turnout which will harm Putin's hopes for a strong new mandate, analysts say.
Navalny seeks to take the shine off Putin's expected victory and highlight voter apathy in his crusade against the 65-year-old Russian leader.
"Turnout at these elections is extremely important for Putin," Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, an independent polling group, said.
"He needs to create the impression of not just a convincing victory but unanimous nationwide support, a plebiscite." In a November poll by the Levada Centre, just 58 percent of respondents said they planned to vote, down from 69 percent before the 2012 election and 75 percent before the 2008 vote.
Putin won the previous election in 2012 on a turnout of 65 per cent and authorities are pulling out all the stops to boost the figures this year.
"People's readiness to go to polls was low before the New Year but it's increasing now," said Gudkov, speaking after receiving new data which the pollster would not publicise.
Labelled a "foreign agent," the Levada Centre has announced it would not be publishing pre-election surveys for fear of running into trouble with the authorities.
"The propaganda machine is moving into high gear," Gudkov said.