Alexei Navalny continues presidency campaign just hours after being released from prison

Alexei Navalny continues presidency campaign just hours after being released from prison

Alexei Navalny continues presidency campaign just hours after being released from prison

Updated 24 October 2017, 6:25 AEDT

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny didn't let 20 days in prison interfere with his bid to be president.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny didn't let 20 days in prison interfere with his bid to be president. Within hours of his release, he flew to southern Russia to continue campaigning. Eric Campbell was the only foreign journalist to witness it.

It was raining in Astrakhan. Pouring. Hundreds of bedraggled supporters huddled under leafless autumn trees in the small run-down park the local authorities had grudgingly sanctioned for the rally.

But none were going to leave until they'd seen if Alexei Navalny really would take a two-hour flight from Moscow to meet them after just being let out of jail.

The strains of Rocky blared from loudspeakers as Russia's most popular opposition figure finally walked in at sunset, flanked by bodyguards and his personal entourage.

He looked remarkably clean and relaxed after serving 20 days for organising "unsanctioned" rallies.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Alexei, you will be performing all alone today'," the 41-year-old lawyer shouted. The crowd roared with laughter.

"I tweeted, 'Great weather, despite the rain, come to the rally'. And someone, probably someone over here, wrote: 'Navalny, we are standing in the water up to our knees.'"

What followed was a two-hour charisma bomb, with Mr Navalny only drawing breath to pose for selfies with an adoring crowd.

He charmed, cracked jokes and praised the greatness of the people of Astrakhan, a provincial city on the Volga River that is one of Russia's poorest towns despite having vast reserves of oil and gas and access to huge fishing fields in the Caspian Sea.

"We are the patriots of our country and United Russia [the ruling party], your regional government and the Kremlin are the enemies," Mr Navalny said to cheers.

"Thugs, bandits and thieves."

Mr Navalny is the first Russian politician to successfully adopt US campaign tactics, working crowds like a seasoned populist.

His constant refrain that people can reclaim politics from their corrupt masters is striking a chord with Russians of all ages after three years of crippling economic recession.

The Kremlin is adamant Mr Navalny won't be running for president, either in the March election or the next one six years later.

He's been convicted of business fraud in a trial human rights group denounced as a sham. On Wednesday, the Central Election Commission announced he wouldn't be eligible to run in any election until 2028 at the earliest.

But Mr Navalny is playing a long game, campaigning furiously for the March election while building up a national campaign infrastructure. In recent months, he's set up offices in 80 cities.

Russia's constitution limits a president to two terms, but Vladimir Putin — who was first elected in 2000 — has easily stomped around that rule by alternating the positions of president and prime minister with his loyal deputy Dmitry Medvedev.

The requirement to face the electorate has devolved into what many now see as an embarrassingly empty ritual.

'I'm not going to tell people they can't run'

Each election since the 1990s has had a familiar cast of characters — Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a supposed firebrand who has always backed Mr Putin, Gennady Zyuganov, who has turned the Communist Party into a toothless rump, and a token opposition figure.

This year it's 35-year-old Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and television host whose father was Mr Putin's mentor as law lecturer and later governor of St Petersburg. It was once rumoured Mr Putin was her godfather.

Some of the biggest laughs at Mr Navalny's rally came in the Q&A session when people asked Mr Navalny what he thought of her bid, announced on Wednesday.

"Everyone who is over 35 and not in jail has the right to run in elections," he said with po-faced semi-seriousness.

"Unlike Putin, I'm not going to tell people they can't run."

There were no big Russian networks covering the rally. State-controlled TV refuses to even mention Mr Navalny.

But that doesn't actually stop his message getting out. Apart from a handful of independent channels and the BBC Russian service reporting on him regularly, Mr Navalny has his own YouTube channel watched by millions.

Being the only foreign journalist among the handful of Russian reporters at the rally put me at a disadvantage.

Mr Navalny studied at Yale and speaks fluent English, but to burnish his nationalist credentials, he refuses to speak that foreign language when Russian media are present.

When I inquired at the post-rally presser how he could run when he'd been ruled ineligible, he insisted I pose the question in my broken Russian.

"I'm not interested in what the Government thinks because I'm going to these elections to change the Government," he answered in Russian.

"If I am not allowed to run, then it won't be possible to call that procedure elections. We will start a big campaign to boycott it."

Outside the park, a few policemen milled about looking cranky at having to stand out in the rain. It was a stark contrast to the scenes I'd witnessed a couple of weeks earlier in St Petersburg when hundreds of riot police arrested marchers at one of Mr Navalny's "unsanctioned" rallies.

The Kremlin seems at a loss as to how to deal with him. If it jails him for years, it risks making him a martyr and triggering unstoppable protests.

But sporadic arrests and prison terms aren't deterring him or his supporters. And barring him from running has only made millions of voters more determined to see him on the ballot.

After 18 years under the grey rule of the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, Mr Navalny is laying bare the lack of choice in Russia's pretend democracy.

And it seems neither rain, nor jail, nor sleight of law is going to stop him.