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Russia’s best-known opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has accused the regime of President Vladimir Putin of being “built on corruption” and called on the Kremlin to mend battered relations with the West.

As Russia braces for a day of nationwide anti-Kremlin rallies on Sunday, Navalny, who has been barred from standing in the March 18 presidential elections, claimed Putin was scared of opposition.

In an exclusive interview with CNN at his Moscow headquarters, he warned of growing impatience for political change. “Putin has been in power for 18 years now,” Navalny said. “People are not ready to wait another six years, then another six, then another.”

The 41-year-old anti-corruption campaigner said his supporters will take to the streets in more than 100 towns and cities across Russia on Sunday in a rare show of political defiance.

Navalny said people blamed the regime for their plight. “The Putin regime is built on corruption,” he told CNN. “According to official data, over 20% of our population lives below the poverty line. And people link the obvious. Why are we so poor? Because they steal so much,” he said, referring to Russia’s ruling elite.

The Kremlin has rejected allegations of widespread high-level corruption and has condemned Navalny as a dangerous influence whose calls for protests could plunge Russia into chaos.

A 2017 criminal conviction for embezzlement means Navalny is blocked under Russian law from standing for public office. Critics say the case against him was politically motivated.

Navalny accused Putin of being afraid of opposition. “He is scared of all real competition. He only allows those to run who don’t even resist, who don’t even campaign,” he said.

Vast chasm

But Navalny’s confidence is not supported by Russian opinion polls.

Putin, who controls and dominates state media, regularly achieves popularity ratings close to 90%. Navalny, who gets hardly any attention in national media, polls barely 2%, illustrating the vast chasm the opposition figure would need to bridge even if he were allowed to stand against Putin.

Yet outside Russia, Navalny is viewed positively as a preferable alternative to hard-line Putin, who has led Russia into confrontation with the West.

Navalny insisted he would be capable of repairing that relationship.

Russia “needs to stop supporting the war in Ukraine (and) stop using shady methods of hybrid war like election interference and hacking,” he said.

But he argued that it served Putin’s interests to be cast as a bogeyman in the West. “From the Kremlin’s point of view, and Putin’s point of view, this is a good thing that keeps his image on the front pages of the Western media,” Navalny told CNN. “But this is stupid. These are just further steps towards this country’s degradation.”

CNN’s Emma Burrows in Moscow contributed to this report.