Putin opponent faces criminal inquiry into 'forged signatures'

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Kasyanov, the only remaining candidate running on a democratic, opposition platform in Russia's presidential election, said yesterday that a campaign was under way to derail his candidacy after a criminal investigation was launched against him.

"The authorities fear a free political confrontation," said Mr Kasyanov, who served as prime minister during Vladimir Putin's first term before becoming a critic of the administration. Russian authorities have accused Mr Kasyanov's campaign of forging some of the two million signatures he was required to collect from Russian citizens in support of his candidacy. The Russian prosecutor general's office said a criminal investigation had been opened in two regions. If more than 5 per cent of the signatures are declared invalid, the Central Electoral Committee will bar him from standing.

Mr Kasyanov's regional activists, who collected the signatures, spoke of a systematic campaign of intimidation and blackmail by police. "They're not just questioning the people who are collecting the signatures, but also their family members," said Inna Novikova, a representative of Mr Kasyanov in the southern Karachaevo-Cherkessia region. "They came to my house and questioned my elderly, ill mother," she added.

Ms Novikova and representatives from other Russian regions said there had also been threats that they would be fired from their jobs if they didn't admit that signatures had been faked.

Analysts say that Mr Kasyanov, whom opinion polls give only about 1 per cent of public support, has no chance of beating Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin's choice, in the election on 2 March.

Mr Kasyanov has dismissed the allegations as a smear campaign and puts his low approval rating down to a lack of access to state-controlled television.

"This is the final test of what kind of government we have," said Mr Kasyanov. "Human rights and freedom of speech are violated every day... But will Russian citizens be able to choose their own president?"

Mr Medvedev made a major policy speech yesterday, the first since he was nominated for the presidency in December. He said that one of his main tasks would be to wipe out corruption among officials, something Mr Putin has also spoken about on many occasions but failed to deliver.

Mr Medvedev has been seen by some as a liberal choice to succeed Mr Putin, who might prove business friendly and less confrontational on the international stage. But he has already said he wants Mr Putin to be his prime minister, ensuring a continuing role for the current President.