Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Saturday, 10 October 2009 00:00 UK

Protests in Moscow at 'rigged' polls

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Boris Nemtsov speaks at a rally in Moscow, Russia, 30 September 2009
Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov says Sunday's polls are a farce

Opposition activists in Russia are up in arms as tens of millions of Russians prepare to go to the polls across the country in local elections this weekend.

Opposition groups have been particularly angry in the capital Moscow, openly accusing authorities of rigging the election for the city assembly to ensure the ruling party maintains its tight grip on power.

The vote is the first test of the government's popularity since the economic crisis hit the country hard a year ago.

In the run-up to the elections, a small group of protesters took to the streets of Moscow, calling for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, to be removed from office.

They were venting their frustration after the election commission blocked all serious opponents of the government from running as independent candidates in Sunday's crucial vote for the Moscow assembly.

'Multiple violations'

The commission said their application forms had mistakes or the signatures needed to support the applications had been faked.

Never before have the authorities gone this far in trying to make campaigning difficult for the opposition
Nikolai Gubenko
Moscow assembly member

One opposition candidate - former minister Vladimir Milov - dismissed this as nonsense, accusing the authorities of fixing the election before people even had a chance to vote.

"There were multiple violations during the process of verifying my signatures and these were severe violations of the Moscow city electoral laws," said Mr Milov.

"Obviously due to a political order from the top Russian and Moscow authorities, all of the independent candidates were banned from the elections including myself.

"It looks like the Moscow city government chose to ban 100% of the independent candidates to secure the desired outcome of the election results."

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov described Sunday's polls as "fraud, farce, 100%", suggesting Muscovites might boycott the election.

"No parties which have criticised the views of the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov are taking part in the elections, and Vladimir Putin's party of corrupted bureaucracy is the biggest organisation trying to control power for future corruption," he said.

"That is why this is not an election and it's why an idea of a boycott is quite interesting and I believe that millions of Muscovites don't want to go at all (to vote)."

Unprecedented pressure

The move has left just the so-called official opposition parties such as the communists in the race. Critics say they are only tolerated because they do not pose any real threat to the government.

President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in Moscow, 5 September 2009
Protesters have called for Mr Luzhkov, right, to be removed from power

But Nikolai Gubenko, a communist member of the Moscow assembly, said even his party was facing unprecedented pressure from the authorities in this election.

"Never before have the authorities gone this far in trying to make campaigning difficult for the opposition - any opposition, regardless of party affiliations," he said.

"We are having enormous difficulties meeting people, holding campaign events, even putting up paid advertising posters."

Certainly, on the streets of the capital, all I have seen has been posters and activists for the ruling party, United Russia, and for a couple of other Kremlin-friendly parties.

Allegations denied

A recent opinion poll showed that almost 40% of Muscovites believe Sunday's election will be rigged.

One Muscovite I spoke to said the election had already been decided.

"This is a show, not an election," he said. "My vote will not count anyway."

Another voter said she was pessimistic about the poll.

I can look you in the eye and promise you that people will be free to vote for any of the registered candidates
Gennady Raykov
Central election commission

"It doesn't matter how I vote, or how other people vote - the authorities will effectively appoint the people who they think are right," she said.

The election commission strenuously denied the allegations.

"If you look up the laws, you'll see that it is now a crime to rig an election," said Gennady Raykov, who is co-ordinating the Moscow city election.

"We already have cases where people have been prosecuted. I can look you in the eye and promise you that people will be free to vote for any of the registered candidates."

Critics say that may well be true, as the genuine opposition has already been eliminated.

Election observers say what is happening in the capital is particularly worrying because methods used for elections in Moscow - if successful - are then copied across the country.

It all flies in the face of President Dmitry Medvedev's recent promise to renew the country's political system and develop Russia in a democratic way.

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