Opposition unites against Putin – for the time being

Russia's fractured democratic opposition announced plans to unite yesterday, with the goal of offering a single candidate to stand for presidential elections due in 2012, and breaking the stranglehold of Vladimir Putin over Russian politics.

However, the problems they face were immediately apparent, as the venue where they were due to announce the merger cancelled their press conference at the last minute "for technical reasons", and key opposition leaders refused to take part.

In the end, four of the country's top opposition leaders made the announcement that they were setting up the "Russia Without Tyranny or Lawlessness" coalition, including Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, and Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. The liberal opposition is for the most part denied access to state-controlled television, and their ideas enjoy little support among the population at large, after the chaos of the "democratic" 1990s.

"The prospect of having the great Putin till the year 2024 in our country is a disaster for Russia," said Mr Nemtsov yesterday, at a hastily arranged venue on the other side of Moscow from the news agency that cancelled their planned conference.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was forced to leave the presidency in 2008, as the Russian constitution stipulates that a president can only serve two successive terms. He handed over to Dmitry Medvedev in a carefully choreographed transition, but he is still widely regarded as the most important man in Russia. He can return to office in 2012 for another two presidential terms, which were recently raised from four to six years. Recently, Mr Putin said he didn't yet know whether he would run for the presidency again, but pointed out that Franklin Roosevelt had been President of the United States for four terms.

"Our main strategic goal is to change the political course of the country," said Mr Kasyanov. "For this, we need a transfer of power." Mr Kasyanov and Mr Nemtsov are joined in the coalition by Vladimir Ryzhkov, formerly an independent MP, and Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister.

Even before it started, the coalition showed that it was unable to escape factionalism and in-fighting – the traditional problem of the liberal opposition. Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who now leads a marginalised opposition party, was not part of the group. A few hours before the announcement, Mr Milov posted a message on his Twitter account: "It's very simple – if Kasparov appears, there will be no Milov. Your choice, colleagues." Mr Nemtsov, however, said he still hoped to persuade Mr Kasparov to join the group.

Yabloko, the traditional liberal political party, will also remain outside the coalition for now. "We didn't refuse, but we suggested the platform we wanted to promote, and that didn't suit Kasyanov and the others," said Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko's leader.

The coalition plans to register as a political party which would then take part in parliamentary elections next year and promote a single candidate for the presidency in 2012. Currently there are no opposition-minded forces in Russia's parliament bar the Communists. A recent law requires parties to garner at least 7 per cent of the popular vote before they can enter the Duma, a barrier that the opposition say shuts them out when combined with voting irregularities and unfair media access.

If cracks do start appearing in the carefully constructed "power vertical", it will most likely not be due to the democratic opposition, but instead be caused by a potential rift between Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev, and their respective teams. Most analysts, however, believe that Mr Medvedev will step aside quietly if his predecessor decides he wants to return to the Kremlin in 2012.

The rivals: Key figures in the movement to oust Putin

Boris Nemtsov

A prominent political figure during the 1990s, Mr Nemtsov rose to the post of deputy prime minister. He continued as a mainstream liberal politician during the early years of Mr Putin's rein but gradually became more marginalised, and is now regularly arrested for participating in protests. He has recently published an extremely critical book summing up what he sees as the results of Mr Putin's time in power.

Mikhail Kasyanov

Mr Kasyanov was prime minister during the first four years of the Putin presidency, but after his dismissal in 2004 went into opposition. He attempted to stand for the presidency in the 2008 election, but his candidacy was annulled after the authorities ruled that some of the required 2 million signatures endorsing his candidacy were fraudulent.

Garry Kasparov

The chess legend, whom many consider to be the greatest player in the history of the game, could have had an easy retirement travelling the world lecture circuit. Instead, Mr Kasparov decided to go into politics and has become one of Russia's most outspoken and radical opposition leaders. It is unclear whether he will join the new coalition.

Nikita Belykh

Formerly the leader of SPS, a business-oriented liberal party, Mr Belykh was arrested at a protest over the election that put Mr Medvedev in power. So it was surprising that Mr Medvedev took the unprecedented step of offering him the governorship of Kirov Region – and that Mr Belykh accepted.

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