Russian court quashes ban on bolshy Bolsheviks

Though small, the party's radical direct action has often angered the government which has responded by throwing the full weight of the law at the ultra-nationalist and anti-establishment group.

Its shaven-headed activists sport the party's symbol, a black hammer and sickle emblem on a red and white Nazi flag, and have occupied government buildings, pelted officials with food and demanded Mr Putin's resignation in a well-choreographed series of publicity stunts.

With parliamentary elections looming in 2007 and many in the Kremlin jumpy about the prospect of Ukraine-style velvet revolutions, the government is not taking any chances. In June, a Moscow court banned the NBP on the grounds that it was not legally entitled to call itself a political party. It was reported to be the first time a political party had been banned since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Officials said the group was intent on "a forceful change of the foundations of the constitution" and said it threatened the territorial integrity of Russia.

Yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court to quash the ban delighted the NBP's eccentric leader, Eduard Limonov, but disappointed the Kremlin, which views the group as extremely dangerous. The prosecutor general's office immediately signalled that it would appeal against the decision.

Mr Limonov, a bespectacled goatee-bearded writer who for many years lived as a Soviet émigré in New York, said: "There is hope for this country's future." Mr Limonov, who has served time in jail on firearms offences, told Ekho Moskvy radio that the court had struck an important blow for political freedom. "Russia's highest court has recognised our right to exist. They [the judges] weighed up everything. They realised their enormous responsibility ... that something bigger than the National Bolshevik Party was at stake.

"The ban could have set a precedent and given a free hand to those who want to see a one-party system and authoritarian rule."

Last summer, NBP activists occupied the health ministry's offices which they ransacked after arriving in fake uniforms and pretending they were a bomb squad.

The activists, who pointedly threw a portrait of Mr Putin out of the window, were sentenced to jail terms of up to five years though those terms were later reduced.

Last December, they were at it again, storming part of Mr Putin's public offices and unfurling a banner reading "Putin, quit your job!". The Kremlin was far from amused. Thirty-nine activists are on trial for that prank and face jail sentences of up to eight years if found guilty. The party's ideology is unclear, a bizarre mix of left and right. The Kremlin claims the NBP once plotted to raise armed units and create a so-called "second Russia" in Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republic.

This year, armed FSB security agents raided its central Moscow office.

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