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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 December 2005, 14:00 GMT
Putin rival gets rough ride
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Kursk, Russia

Russia's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is looking for a springboard to run for president in 2008.

Sleeper Train Number 17 rumbles through the frozen Russian countryside.

Mikhail Kasyanov
Mikhail Kasyanov: Mounting a challenge to President Putin

On board is a colourful slice of Russian life: I can see soldiers tucking into sausage and vodka; there are babushkas sitting doing crossword puzzles. And outside one compartment - two very tall security guards. They unlock the door and usher me in to meet Mikhail Kasyanov.

He was Vladimir Putin's prime minister for four years until his sacking in 2004. Now Mr Kasyanov says his former boss is taking Russia in the wrong direction. He is off to the regions to see if ordinary Russians agree - and if they'll vote for him in 2008 to be the country's next president.

"We're moving not in the way of a democratic developed country," Mr Kasyanov tells me.

"People are scared about their lives. People are scared about the authorities. The authorities believe that everything should be under their control."

Obstructions

Since he began voicing criticism of the Kremlin, Mr Kasyanov has found himself under increasing pressure.

There is talk of a possible criminal case against him over alleged corruption. He cannot get airtime on Russia's main national TV networks.

Opponents of Mr Kasyanov in Kursk
Opponents of Mr Kasyanov tried to disrupt his speech
The authorities are acting as if they are scared of him.

Waiting for him to arrive in the city of Kursk are protesters from a Kremlin-controlled youth movement. It has been set up to prevent liberal politicians like Mikhail Kasyanov from sparking an "Orange Revolution" in Russia.

To make the point, they try to attach an orange teddy bear to a huge bunch of orange balloons and make it all float away. When that fails, they concentrate on shouting "Kasyanov - Get out of town!"

"Kasyanov wants Orange Revolution, like it was in Ukraine", says student Alexander, who organised the protest.

"So he tries to fight with Putin and he will tell anything to do it!"

Just before Mr Kasyanov arrives to deliver a speech on democracy the crowd turns violent. Some of the them try to push their way into the building. One protester barges in, fists flying. With the police doing little to keep order, it is left to Kasyanov supporters to bundle him out.

It is another two hours before Mr Kasyanov considers it safe enough to make an appearance.

The next day there are more problems. When Mr Kasyanov decides to give a news conference, the police announce there has been a bomb threat. Enter riot troops and the sniffer dogs. No bombs are found, but another Kasyanov event is scuppered.

Soviet legacy

Back at his hotel, Mikhail Kasyanov tells me the authorities have tried to sabotage his trip.

Village of Panino near Kursk
In many rural areas support for democracy is weak
"Maybe I was naive, but I believed that we had our rights to have different views and opinions. But it appears that's not quite acceptable for the authorities.

"We feel like we're right now in the middle of the 1980s, in the Soviet Union and I guess ordinary people will very soon start to understand this."

For Mr Kasyanov, though, perhaps not soon enough.

In the village of Panino near Kursk, a horse-drawn sled cuts its way over a path deep in snow. Here, in the Russian countryside, liberal ideas receive an icy reception.

Ask night watchman Alexei what he associates with democracy, and he will tell you economic collapse and corruption.

"What good are democracy and freedom of speech when ordinary Russians are so poor?" Alexei says. "People like Kasyanov are rich because they robbed the state when they were in power."

Mikhail Kasyanov's biggest problem is not pressure from the Kremlin. It is public disillusionment with democracy. It threatens to make his road to the top a very lonely one indeed.



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Scenes of unrest surround Mikhail Kasyanov's public appearances



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