MOSCOW – Alexei Navalny is in bare feet, dressed in blue jeans and a checkered shirt, as he opens the door to his apartment in a drab Soviet-era block.
Two years ago, Navalny was the charismatic driving force behind massive anti-government protests in Moscow. Now he wears a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and is not allowed to step over the threshold of his own home — under house arrest in the small apartment he shares with his wife and two children.
Even in confinement, Navalny vowed in an interview with The Associated Press to continue fighting President Vladimir Putin's regime: "The opposition has to be a moral one," Navalny said, "calling the bad things bad,"
Following violent street protests in neighboring Ukraine, Putin launched a fierce attack against the Russian opposition this year, barring key opponents from running in local elections and putting Navalny and several of his allies under investigation or driving them into exile. With Putin's approval rating at an all-time high, the very survival of the protest movement is at stake. But Navalny views this crackdown as a mere setback in his campaign to advance democracy and the rule of law in Russia.
Still the firebrand orator with magnetic blue eyes has found himself muzzled. He was forbidden from speaking to the media when confined to his home in February, a ban that was only lifted in August. And the 38-year-old corporate lawyer is still not allowed to use the telephone or go online. His wife, Yulia, acts as his personal secretary, corresponding on his behalf and briefing him on what is published on the Internet.
Navalny told The AP that house arrest is a clever Kremlin tactic that keeps him out of public view — while also preventing him from becoming a political martyr in a harsh Russian prison.
"This is a way to derail my activities," he said, "and it's unlikely that they want another political prisoner at this stage."
Navalny, along with his brother Oleg, is on trial for allegedly defrauding a French cosmetics company in a criminal case in which no injured party has stepped forward. The opposition alleges that the Kremlin has cooked up a slew of dubious cases against Navalny allies: One was charged with stealing a painting even though the painter said it was never stolen; another was charged with defrauding Navalny of campaign funds despite the lack of anybody to complain of such theft.
The opposition leader rose to prominence in 2010 with his investigations of corruption at Russia's top state-owned companies. He came in second in Moscow's mayoral election last September, nearly clinching a runoff with a Kremlin heavyweight. Early this year, Navalny and his allies were busy preparing for Moscow City Council elections, when the Ukraine protests that ousted the president caused Russia to crack down on its own opposition.
Sitting in his small kitchen with a cup of tea on a recent afternoon, Navalny said it's understandable that the 2011-2012 protests in Russia fizzled out after repression was unleashed not only against leaders but also grass-roots activists. He said the Kremlin's fear of seeing opposition candidates in elections makes a peaceful handover of power impossible.
"The regime in Russia will not change as a result of an election," he said. "In a situation where we are barred even from running, I don't see how it can."
Putin's popularity soared after Crimea land grab, which was seen by many in Russia as a restoration of historical justice. But Navalny warned that Putin's much quoted approval rating of 84 percent is a fiction.
"Eighty-four percent means nothing in an authoritarian state," he said. If Putin is so confident about the number, he said, "why can't they allow us to run?"
Navalny said the main obstacle to political change in Russia is neither Putin nor persecution of his opponents but rather a lack of confidence among ordinary Russians themselves.
"Many people in Russia simply don't believe that Russia has a future," Navalny said.
The opposition leader said that Putin's intervention in Ukraine is not about restoring the Russian empire. Instead he and his entourage are driven by a more pragmatic motive: staying in power.
"The success of Ukraine is death to them," Navalny said. "It's critically important for them that Ukraine become a failed state."
Navalny's right-hand man, Vladimir Ashurkov, said the opposition leader's resolve has not been broken despite being cut off from the world for eight months.
"Alexei is rock solid," Ashurkov, who has asked for political asylum in Britain, said by the telephone from London. "These things don't affect him."
Navalny, a relentless campaigner, conceded he does find it tough sit around at home all day. But having done a couple of stints in jail, he is not complaining — and he's able to joke about his life under house arrest.
He said his children are "probably annoyed" with him by now because he's always at home: "It looks as if I'm monitoring them all the time."
Navalny spent part of the interview standing — a sign of just how tired he is of sitting — and he credited a treadmill in the living room for keeping him fit.
"I would have weighed 130 kilos (286 pounds) by now," Navalny said, motioning toward the exercise machine. "We bought it immediately after I was put under house arrest. It was clear that this was going to last for quite a while."
On the bright side, Navalny said he finally found the time to read books and watch movies he had been meaning to get to for years.
"When would I have found the time to watch 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?'" he said. "Never. Now I have."