Russian blogger-cum-folk-hero Alexei Navalny, who is already being discussed as a potential contender to challenge Vladimir Putin in upcoming presidential polls, was released from a Moscow prison Wednesday to the wild cheers of supporters.
Mr. Navalny, whose trenchant and well-documented attacks on Kremlin corruption have migrated from the Internet to the streets in recent weeks, was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison after he took part in an unsanctioned rally to protest alleged vote-rigging in Russia's Dec. 4 parliamentary election.
"These 15 days have taught me not to be afraid. I am not alone. We are the majority," he told a jubilant crowd of supporters. "I was imprisoned in one country and am being released into another," he added.
He pledged "extraordinary efforts" to build momentum in the protest movement, which saw at least 30,000 mostly young and middle class demonstrators rally on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10 to demand that the allegedly fraud-tainted elections be cancelled and re-staged under fair rules and conditions.
The next rally is set for this Saturday in Moscow, and well over 30,000 people have already signed a Facebook-based pledge to attend. Russian authorities have permitted the rally, but given covert police actions aimed at discrediting leaders and splitting the movement, they may be extremely worried that the protests could become a real threat to Kremlin dominance.
Navalny is the author of the term "party of rogues and thieves" to describe Mr. Putin's ruling United Russia party (UR), a phrase that went viral in Russia and may have contributed as much as any other factor to UR's massive loss of support in the election.
Even with what critics estimate as up to 20 percent fraudulent boost in its vote tally, UR barely managed to eke out a 50 percent victory in the polls.
After the New Year break, Russia will launch into presidential polls that will see Putin face off against handful of drearily familiar, lackluster opponents, including Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Yabloko chief Grigory Yavlinsky – most of whom have been defeated repeatedly in set-piece elections by Putin.
A new contender is tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who announced his candidacy last week in the wake of the massive Moscow protest. But few think Mr. Prokhorov, a superwealthy "oligarch" who gained his fortune through murky wheeling-and-dealing in the wild 1990s, can attract any votes beyond Russia's narrow business and emerging professional elites.
Many experts say Navalny, with his street cred and reputation as a democratic nationalist, could be the candidate to appeal beyond the confines of downtown Moscow and pose a genuine challenge in Putin's vast provincial and working class base – if he were allowed to run.
"I think Navalny is the leader of the future," says Konstantin Bakulev, director of the independent Institute of Socio-Economic Modernization in Moscow. "He has all the right things going for him: he's a new face, not linked to any of the old-line political parties, and he's really trending right now. People say he's a nationalist, but he's really a patriot. If he proves he can work with people, he will go places."
Upon his release Wednesday morning, Navalny fueled speculation about a possible presidential run by aiming a sharp rhetorical barb at Putin personally.
"The party of rogues and thieves is putting forward its chief rogue and its top thief to run for the presidency," Navalny said. "We must vote against him, struggle against him."