Russian authorities' attempts to jail Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and intimidate his supporters could backfire and trigger new political protests amid the most serious financial crisis of Vladimir Putin's rule.
Thousands pledged to take to the streets after Russian prosecutors this month called for the charismatic 38-year-old leader of the country's beleaguered opposition movement to be sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged fraud.
The January 15 rally near the Kremlin walls could turn out to be the biggest demonstration against Putin's rule since the beginning of Moscow's confrontation with the West over Ukraine late last year.
The demonstration could stir simmering discontent over the collapse of the ruble and growing inflation as oil prices tumble and Western sanctions over Ukraine take their toll.
Facebook found itself in the midst of a political storm in Russia this month.
First it came under huge pressure from the Russian authorities over a page calling for the pro-Navalny rally on January 15, the day of his verdict.
Then it got attacked by the activist's supporters for having "no guts" -- in the words of the founder of Russia's biggest social network VKontakte Pavel Durov -- after it pulled the page down.
"Back in the summer or early fall you could get away with banning such rallies," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Centre for Political Technologies.
"But now that the economic situation has deteriorated dramatically, banning such a rally could backfire on the authorities," he told AFP.
After a huge outcry, Facebook allowed Navalny supporters to create a new page, with 30,000 pledging to attend the protest on Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow.
Navalny, who shot to prominence during anti-Putin protests in 2011-12 which have since fizzled out under a Kremlin crackdown, already faced a five-year term over embezzlement last year but walked away with a suspended sentence to general astonishment.
- 'No way back' -
This time things could be different, observers say.
"This is not 2013. Right now there's no way back. Right now the stakes are very high," said Sergei Guriyev, a prominent Paris-based Russian economist.
"And what was possible earlier is impossible now. They have to cling to power at any cost and no doubt Alexei Navalny presents the biggest threat to the authorities," Guriyev said on Russian radio.
Observers and supporters have been divided over what punishment will be meted out to Navalny in January.
"Navalny will surely be sentenced -- perhaps not to 10 years in a prison camp, but it will be a guilty verdict and a real punishment," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a pro-opposition analyst.
Others say Navalny, who has been under house arrest for most of the year, will receive another suspended term.
Several thousand protesters rallied in central Moscow after the young politician was sentenced to five years in a penal colony on embezzlement charges in a separate case in 2013.
Protesters scrawled graffiti on the parliament building including "Putin is a thief."
The opposition leader himself has said he thinks President Putin will personally decide his fate.
Navalny's influence increased after he came second in the Moscow mayoral election last year, polling more than 27 percent of the vote.
- 'I will never stop' -
With highly emotive language, Navalny used his final moment in court last week to rail against Putin's rule and to call on millions of Russians to stand up for their rights.
He said the judge, investigators, prosecutors and prison officials understood he was being prosecuted for his activism and were reluctant to look him in the eye.
"But life is too short," he said. "Only those moments when we do something right have meaning."
"I will not halt my fight against this junta. I will never stop this."
Along with his brother Oleg, Navalny is accused of defrauding French cosmetics company Yves Rocher of nearly 27 million rubles (more than half a million dollars at the exchange rate at the time).
Last week prosecutors called for Navalny to be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The French firm has said that it suffered no damages by working with the Navalny brothers.
In a clear sign the authorities are ramping up pressure against the opposition, investigators are now focusing their attention on anti-Kremlin satirist Viktor Shenderovich, poet Dmitry Bykov and Boris Akunin, one of country's best-loved mystery writers.
On Tuesday, the Investigative Committee, which reports to Putin, opened a fraud probe against the partner of a top Navalny ally, Vladimir Ashurkov, who has fled to Britain with his family.
The probe -- targeting the "use of budget funds to finance the Moscow opposition" -- is seen as a warning shot to the famous anti-Kremlin figures.
Opposition figure Sergei Parkhomenko urged Russians to turn up for the pro-Navalny rally to defend their future.
"Remember that by defending Navalny today are you are going to defend your own family," he wrote on Facebook.
"You are defending your loved ones from tomorrow's lawlessness, from the unchecked power of the people who have lost conscience and honour."