MOSCOW Up to 1 million Russians are ready to take to the streets to protest against a disputed election and Vladimir Putin's "corrupt regime" is unlikely to hold on to power for more than two years, protest leader Alexei Navalny said on Friday.
Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has emerged a leading light of the disparate opposition, said the public mood had turned against Russia's paramount leader and large crowds would join a protest rally in Moscow on Saturday.
"I am absolutely sure that up to 1 million people are ready to take part in such rallies ... I see the people's mood," Navalny told Reuters in an interview on the eve of the rally against alleged fraud in an election Putin's party won on December 4.
"They stole about 1 million votes. And that's only in Moscow. I think that these people are completely dissatisfied with what happened and are ready to defend their rights, including going out on to the streets," he said by telephone.
The 35-year-old lawyer has become the voice of the opposition since protests began over the election, in which Putin's United Russia won a slim majority in the lower house.
"I don't think Putin's regime of absolute power, which prevails in this country, will last for more than two years - that's the maximum," he said.
Navalny will address Saturday's rally on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue a few days after being released from jail after serving a 15-day sentence for obstruction of justice during one of the earlier protests.
He has gained a large following, particularly among young professionals and Internet users, by using his small shareholdings in various Russian companies to expose high-level corruption and to campaign for greater transparency.
The Internet has been vital for organizing protests in the country of more than 140 million, where state television is tightly controlled and has paid little attention to the biggest opposition rallies since Putin rose to power in 1999.
CARRYING ON TILL DEMANDS ARE MET
Opposition leaders have said they hope at least 50,000 people will attend Saturday's rally in Moscow, which will also be addressed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. More than 40,000 people have pledged online to show up.
"One meeting, another meeting. One day the people will go out on the street, and they will not return. There is only one scenario. We have to carry on until they meet our demands," Navalny said.
The demands include annulling the election and holding a new one, registering opposition parties, dismissing the election commission head and freeing people the protesters consider political prisoners.
Calls by some opposition leaders for another demand to be added to the list - Putin's resignation - have been resisted by some of the organizers who say the main aim of the demonstration is to demand an election rerun.
But Navalny called on Russians to unite against Putin as soon as he was freed from jail early on Wednesday and his influence has risen since the protests began.
Navalny's politics, which mix scorn for the ruling elite and rhetoric on illegal immigration, have gained traction with the middle class. But his chances of becoming a genuine threat to Putin's tightly controlled political system could depend on whether he can mobilize large numbers of protesters.
Although his popularity has fallen, Putin is still widely seen as Russia's most popular politician and is regarded as the ultimate arbiter by the clans which own swathes of the world's biggest energy producer.
Even so, Navalny has increasingly pitted himself against Putin, who is almost certain to extend his 12-year rule by returning to the presidency in an election in March.
"I don't think we need to demand the resignation of Putin. we only need to demand free elections ... The country needs a decent, legitimate president," he said.
Navalny has repeatedly said he is not afraid of reprisals for speaking out against what he has called a corrupt government, and he has warned that authorities have more to lose than protesters from a show of force.
"I think that they (the authorities) have simply realized a simple fact ... it has become more and more obvious that they would lose very quickly, lose everything, if they met us with force. These people are not stupid," he said.