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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 11:33 GMT
Putin machine squeezes opponents
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin next to poster reading: We believe in Russia, we believe in ourselves

Opposition politicians in Russia are warning that the parliamentary election on 2 December could mark the end of any serious opposition to President Vladimir Putin and his already dominant political party, United Russia.

Liberal parties say they are being squeezed out by deliberate changes to electoral laws and that the country is on the way to becoming a one-party state.

One of the last pre-election opinion polls to be published, from the independent Levada centre, suggests that only one party will get into parliament alongside United Russia - the Communist Party.

The mood of resignation, if not despair, was reflected at a recent party for the liberal Yabloko party here in Moscow.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky
The Yabloko leader is struggling to get his liberal message across
It was held to mark the party's 14th birthday and two long tables laden with vodka bottles and finger-food had been set out.

While party leader Grigory Yavlinsky led the toasts and glasses started clinking in traditional fashion, he was soon admitting to me that his party now faced so many obstacles that it was impossible to play an opposition role in today's Russia.

"When you have no possibility for independent financing, no access to independent media, no access to independent justice, then by European standards there's no possibility to become an opposition," he said.

New rules

Since the last election four years ago there has also been a series of significant changes to electoral laws which opposition parties say aims to push them out of the political system.

Among the most important are:

  • Increasing the minimum percentage of votes required for a party to enter parliament from 5% to 7% and banning parties from forming coalitions in order to break through the higher threshold
  • Increasing the minimum number of members a party must have in order to be officially registered by the authorities, from 10,000 to 50,000
  • Banning independent candidates from running for parliament.

Yabloko has always been a small party and failed to cross the lower threshold in the last election. Now it knows it stands absolutely no chance of getting back into parliament.

But Mr Yavlinsky refuses to give up.

"We are sure there are millions of people who support the alternative, who want to bring democracy," he said.

Besides the legal changes and the Kremlin's control of all the most important media outlets, opposition parties also complain of harassment by the authorities.

Several leaders of the Other Russia opposition coalition were arrested on Saturday at a rally in Moscow. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of the coalition leaders, was jailed for five days.

Another liberal party, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), says more than a million copies of its manifesto were confiscated by the police in Siberia.

Garry Kasparov (centre) in court
Garry Kasparov (centre) accuses the Kremlin of harassment
Party leader Nikita Belykh has accused the government of using "totalitarian methods" to undermine the SPS election campaign.

Another place of sombre reflection these days is the parliamentary office of independent MP Vladimir Ryzhkov.

He has been an outspoken critic of President Putin and his party United Russia for many years.

But now he has been packing his bags. His days as a member of the Duma - the lower house of parliament - are over.

He cannot run as an independent candidate because of the changes in the law and his party was disqualified because a court ruled it did not meet the new minimum party membership requirement.

Mr Ryzhkov disputes this and says he has taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

He is bitter and says the upcoming election will be "the first absolutely non-free election since the end of the Soviet Union".

"It's becoming more and more like Soviet political system," he said, "with one centre of power: (the) Kremlin and Kremlin administration, which controls everything - parliament, courts, the party system, media, regional authorities and local authorities.

"(It's) a pyramid of power headed by one man."

'Successful leader'

But supporters of the Kremlin dismiss all these allegations as the complaints of losers.

"There is a liberal electorate in Russia," says pro-Kremlin analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, "but only for one liberal project.

"During all public opinion polls (for the liberals) in previous years the figures have been quite stable at between eight and ten per cent. They need to unite and that is what they are not doing."

Mr Nikonov believes the other big problem the liberal parties face is that they are still associated with the chaos of the 1990s and in particular the economic crash in 1998.

And as for allegations that this whole election is being manipulated to ensure United Russia wins a huge majority, Mr Nikonov was equally dismissive.

"President Putin received the country eight years ago (when it had a ) GDP of $200 billion and today Russia's GDP is $1.2 trillion.. and people feel it," he says.

"So it's not just about manipulation, it's also about Putin being one of the most successful Russian leaders."



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