The Kremlin's top critic Alexei Navalny has slammed Russia's March presidential election, in which he is barred from running, as a sham meant to "re-appoint" Vladimir Putin on his way to becoming "emperor for life".
With two months to go before Russians vote in polls that are all but guaranteed to hand Putin a historic fourth term, the 41-year-old opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner spoke to AFP Tuesday in his campaign headquarters.
"This is not an election and my role will consist of explaining to people that this procedure, which they call an election, in fact is only held to re-appoint Putin," he said.
"We will prove this and convince people that it's impossible to recognise either these polls or this regime."
Navalny last year mounted a national campaign, meeting thousands of people in cities across Russia, but in December the Central Election Commission said he could not take part due to a controversial embezzlement conviction which the opposition leader calls fabricated.
He is now ready to channel the force of his campaign into persuading Russians to boycott the polls, calling his first major protest of this year on January 28.
"Putin wants to be emperor for life. His entourage, people who became billionaires and the world's richest individuals, they want the same thing," he said, vouching to continue his "political fight."
- 'Putin fears me' -
Navalny's rise to the top of Russia's opposition in recent years has seen him tone down his previous nationalist rhetoric. Focussing on corruption, he mounted two major protests last year which drew tens of thousands of participants across Russia and resulted in hundreds of arrests.
Ignored by most media, notably government-controlled television, Navalny has been highly visible online. A video he posted about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's alleged secret wealth has received 25 million views since March.
Despite constant pressure from the authorities, Navalny has built a considerable support base, and many of his campaigners are young people.
In 2017 he had three stints in jail and his supporters are also frequently arrested and attacked.
Putin "fears me and he fears the people I represent," Navalny said. "I created the biggest political movement in Russia's recent history with over 200,000 volunteers."
These volunteers, spread through offices in most Russian regions, will now be organised to support a "voters' strike", he said.
"We are not going to vote, we are seeking to convince everyone that they should not vote, and we will monitor the election to prevent the authorities from falsifying turnout," including in the Caucasus region, known for publishing dubious figures of over 90 percent.
Putin's popularity has hovered above 80 percent since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, according to several pollsters.
Among his rivals on the ballot are Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, the longtime leader of the Liberal-Democratic party Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal candidates Ksenia Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky.
None of them are currently polling at more than eight percent.
A successful election will see the 65-year-old Putin return to the Kremlin for another six-year term. That would extend his rule until 2024, making him the country's longest serving leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.
- 'Authoritarian state' -
Navalny said Putin's popularity was artificially high in a non-competitive atmosphere. "These ratings only exist in conditions where (authorities) don't let certain candidates participate and only allow people they have personally picked," he said.
He accused Putin of having "turned Russia into an authoritarian state" with instability manifesting itself in acts of terror and falling quality of life while he "made corruption the core of his rule."
"Corruption made our country -- a country very rich with oil -- poor!" he said.
"We are fighting for our country, our future," he said.
A father of two, he added that he understands the risks to him and his family but does not let that stop him.
"I know what actions the Kremlin is capable of," he said, mentioning the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
"Of course I am, as a normal person, worried about the safety of my family."