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MOSCOW (AFP) – Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Monday made his first appearance in a televised election debate in his campaign for Moscow mayor, vowing to end corruption allegedly linked to allies of President Vladimir Putin and crack down on immigration.
The live debate on regional Moscow television ahead of the September 8 elections included four other leading candidates but not the incumbent mayor Sergei Sobyanin, the overwhelming favourite who has opted not to take part in the debates.
Dressed in a suit and tie rather than his usual uniform of shirt and jeans, Navalny sought to strike a refined tone in the debate along with the candidates from the established Communist, Liberal Democratic, Fair Russia and Yabloko parties.
Navalny first emerged as a protest leader in the 2011-2012 protests against Putin but this is his first live television debate with other politicians.
"We know exactly what to do with Moscow corruption," he said in his opening statement.
"We know what to do with the absolutely excessive Moscow immigration," added Navalny, proposing the imposition of a visa regime for citizens from ex-Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Sobyanin's campaign headquarters said at the weekend that the mayor would not be taking part in the debates and would instead "concentrate on his pre-election work, on direct contact with Muscovites and voters."
Polls in July showed Navalny set to reap only eight percent of the vote but he has launched a hugely energetic campaign in a bid to challenge Sobyanin.
In the debate, Navalny confidently predicted he would be able to push Sobyanin into a second round, an achievement which would cause a shockwave in federal politics.
He alleged that tycoons were given major Moscow infrastructure projects just because of their links to Putin, explicitly singling out the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg as well as the businessman Gennady Timchenko.
All are reportedly friends of Putin from Saint Petersburg and former judo partners. But they have always vehemently denied such allegations of impropriety.
"Look at what happens in Moscow --- who gets the biggest road projects? The Rotenbergs, whose merit is only that they are friends of Putin," said Navalny.
"I want to become the mayor who will put order here. Not one more tender will proceed according to closed rules."
He talked tough on immigration -- another trademark policy which has on occasion troubled liberal-inclined supporters -- saying he would take a "maximum" hard line the issue.
"I don't know why I need a visa for France or Germany whereas any citizen of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can buy a one-way ticket and come here" to Russia.
Navalny is campaigning in the election under the shadow of a hotly contested five year prison camp sentence for embezzlement handed to him by a court in the northern Kirov region in July.
He was jailed immediately but then released a day later pending his appeal, a surprise move which some analysts believe is a bid by Sobyanin to legitimise his re-election by having a serious opponent.
However, in a new legal headache Monday, prosecutors accused Navalny of having received illegal campaign financing from abroad, allegations rubbished by the opposition leader.
Navalny said in the debate that the claims were a riposte to his own calls for a probe into a large apartment owned by the Sobyanin's teenage daughter, which he estimated was worth more than $5 million. Sobyanin's team said he acquired it legitimately.
"This is done to distract attention from the (anti-corruption) investigations we are doing, including into Sergei Sobyanin, and which we are not going to stop," said Navalny.