Putin accused of keeping opposition off airwaves

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Leaders of Russia's main opposition parties unleashed a torrent of invective yesterday against President Vladimir Putin and the centrist United Russia party he backs, complaining that the Kremlin was cramming the airwaves with "distortion and lies" in the run-up to Sunday's elections to the Duma, the lower house.

The outbursts came from the Communists as well as the Union of Right Forces (SPS), the chief proponent of free-market economics, on the right, with the moderate reformist Yabloko Party chiming in timidly from the sidelines.

The leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennadi Zyuganov, issued a series of open letters, including an appeal to Mr Putin, in which he said the elections already had no chance of being "either free or fair". This was broadcast yesterday on a single television channel in some of the party's allocated campaign airtime.

Mr Zyuganov also sent an open letter to the head of the Constitutional Court and the Central Electoral Commission, reminding them of their responsibilities under the law to ensure fairness for all participants in the election, and cited the protests in Serbia and, most recently, Georgia, after elections had been rigged. The Communist leader appended a preliminary report by observers for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, published this week, which expressed serious misgivings about the way in which the Kremlin had seemingly used the state media to the advantage of United Russia.

The three parties agreed to send their own monitors to the polling stations. The Communists also withdrew from the official monitoring exercise organised by the election commission, the supposedly neutral body that oversees the election. The SPS, led by the troika of reformists - Irina Khakamada, Boris Nemtsov and Anatoli Chubais - warned of the "end of democracy in Russia" if supporters of faster reform stayed at home or ticked the "against all candidates" box. Mr Nemtsov said: "The amount of manipulation and peddling of a single party has reached an unprecedented level."

He and his co-leaders painted an apocalyptic picture of a parliament that would be in hock to a reactionary "red-brown alliance", because it would consist only of the policy-free United Russia, which would allow itself to be dictated to by a reactionary alliance of the far-right Liberal Democrat party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the conservative-patriotic Rodina party and the Communists. This fear appeared to derive less from reality than from the need to get its voters out. There is no evidence that Mr Putin would throw in his lot with a so-called red-brown alliance, but there are forecasts that SPS might not pass the 5 per cent bar to form a parliamentary faction.

The Kremlin's hand has been increasingly visible behind United Russia, especially in state television broadcasts. Words or deeds of the President have been the lead item in almost every main news bulletin. Other items have cast rival parties in a highly negative light.

For example, features on dire housing conditions - rats in cellars, defective sewers and other faults - have invariably noted that the districts in question are run by Communists, even though identical conditions exist elsewhere.

* Russia said yesterday it might ratify the UN's Kyoto protocol on curbing global warming. "There are no decisions about ratification apart from the fact that we are moving towards ratification," said Mukhamed Tsikhanov, the minister responsible for Kyoto. On Tuesday, a senior Kremlin adviser had said that Russia would not approve the pact.