Putin muzzles opposition in Soviet-style election farce

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The Independent Online

Seven candidates have registered to challenge Vladimir Putin in the presidential election, after all the leading Russian opposition figures pulled out of the contest amid accusations that it would be a charade.

The election on 14 March looks like a one-horse race that will carry President Putin to near-certain victory against a handful of marginal contenders.

The candidates who met Wednesday's deadline to file include Mr Putin; the left-wing nationalist Sergei Glazyev; the outspoken liberal Irina Khakamada and Ivan Rybkin, whose party is financed by the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

But the Central Electoral Commission said some may be winnowed out before the list is finalised on 8 February if "irregularities" are found among the nominations, which each require two million signatures.

The commission chief, Alexander Veshnyakov, cited allegations that Mr Glazyev, Ms Khakamada and Mr Rybkin might have forged or "bought" some signatures. "There is evidence that a crime has been committed," Mr Veshnyakov said. "We have no desire to remove candidates for no good reason, but we are not going to ignore clear violations."

Some experts say that the lack of serious opposition is normal, given Mr Putin's command of public opinion: his approval ratings stand at 86 per cent. Others worry that Russian democracy may be slipping back into Soviet-style farce.

"You can divide the candidates into two groups: the winner, Putin, then the rest, who will be like background dancers for Putin," said Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Our political life has been replaced by a ritual of installing the leader. We don't need any politicians for this - this is a job for stage directors."

Mr Glazyev, an economist who favours taxing the rich and restoring state guidance over the economy, has been a rising political star since his movement, Motherland, won a surprise 10 per cent of the vote in the December parliamentary elections.

Ms Khakamada, a leading liberal who is running without the backing of her party, the Union of Right Forces, has angered the Kremlin by charging Mr Putin with authoritarianism and creating "a climate of fear" in Russia. "I am the cork flying out of the bottle that has the will of the Russian people locked up inside," Ms Khakamada said.

Also running is the speaker of parliament's upper house, Sergei Mironov, who admits that his main goal is to support his friend and political ally, Mr Putin. "When a leader who is trusted goes into battle, he must not be left alone," Mr Mironov told journalists. "One must stand beside him." But virtually all of Russia's traditional opposition heavies have simply decided to sit this election out.

The Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, who won 30 per cent of the vote when he ran against Mr Putin in 2000, has tipped a little-known member of the near-defunct Agrarian Party, Nikolai Kharitonov, to carry the pro-Communist banner this time around.

Russia's best-known liberal, Grigory Yavlinsky, who has run in every previous post-Soviet election, bowed out, saying that "free, equal and politically competitive elections are impossible" this time.

Even the flamboyant ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, never known to shun the limelight, has sent his bodyguard, a former boxer named Oleg Malyshkin, to be his electoral standard-bearer.

Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Institute for Globalisation Studies in Moscow, a left-leaning think-tank, said: "[The main opposition leaders] prefer to abstain, even if it means public disgrace, than to risk the wrath of the Kremlin by standing against Putin."