Communist leader finds his jokes about President Putin are no laughing matter

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The Siberian city of Novosibirsk has discovered the dangers of free speech after a Communist Party newsletter containing jokes about President Vladimir Putin prompted an investigation by the FSB security service.

A series of jokes attributed to the party leader Gennady Zyuganov gently poked fun at Mr Putin and the United Russia party he will lead into elections in a month's time. In a sign that criticism of the Kremlin-backed party will not go down well, a local FSB official in Novosibirsk reported the circular to his superiors, saying the Communists made "inappropriate references to United Russia and President Putin".

The election campaign in Russia begins officially today and United Russia is expected to dominate coverage and sweep the vote. International observers have criticised Russia's plans to restrict monitoring of the poll.

A return to the 1930s, when telling "Trotskyite jokes" could be fatal, is unlikely but it does pay to be prudent when poking fun at Mr Putin. Earlier this year, a regional newspaper got into hot water after portraying Mr Putin as a Sovietdouble agent in Nazi uniform on its front page, while a reporter was taken to court last year for describing Mr Putin as a "phallic symbol" in an online report.

Now that Mr Putin is head of United Russia, the implications for the parliamentary elections are huge. "You can't criticise Putin on television or in the mainstream media, so now you can't criticise United Russia either," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst.

United Russia wants to portray the election not as a fight between political parties but as a referendum on Putin, said the analyst. The party's slogan is "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory".

Eleven parties have been registered for the vote but the Communists are the only party apart from United Russia who are certain to garner the 7 per cent required to enter the Duma. "United Russia will get 60 or 65 per cent of the vote," said Mr Oreshkin. "All the regional governors will be doing their best to push up the figures."

Other possible contenders to make the next Duma are Fair Russia, which was set up with Kremlin support to run as a controllable opposition but has lost its way since Mr Putin threw all his backing behind United Russia, and the Liberal Democrats, run by the controversial nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and featuring on its ticket Andrei Lugovoy, who is wanted in Britain for questioning over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

It's far from certain that either of Russia's genuine liberal parties will make it, since they have failed to join forces and offer a common liberal candidate. "Their disunity is a problem, and liberals now find themselves demoralised and are retreating, becoming more like Soviet-era kitchen dissidents," said Mr Oreshkin.

Even further to the fringe is The Other Russia, an opposition coalition led by the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and the writer Eduard Limonov, which has been refused registration but is calling on its supporters to write the party's name on ballot papers when they vote. The party reported this week that its activists had been detained by plainclothes policemen and its campaign materials had been seized in different Russian cities.

International concerns about the vote have been intensified by the circumstances surrounding the invitation of European monitors, which have been described as "unnecessarily late". The invitation also limited the number of observers to 70, and contained a number of implicit and explicit restrictions. About 400 observers were sent to monitor the 2003 parliamentary elections.