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Putin Critic Takes Show on Road

An ex-prime minister stumps in Russia's heartland, assailing state authoritarianism and telling the opposition to unite for the 2008 vote.

November 04, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

SAMARA, Russia — A young man near the front of the room, a second-year architecture student, stood up boldly. "Lenin would have had a name for the current situation in the country," he proclaimed. "It smells of revolution!"

The youth scrutinized the politician in the decidedly unrevolutionary starched shirt and expensive suit. "Do you plan to lead an opposition that says the country is turning into a police state?" he asked. "Because we would support you."

Former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, who was here in Russia's heartland this week to launch a bid to lead the nation's fractured opposition forces toward the presidency in 2008, declined to pick up the hot torch.

"I don't call on anyone to foment revolution. I call on everyone to effect change through the constitution," he said evenly. "We've already had so many revolutions in this country that we can't stand any more."

Privately, Kasyanov was less dismissive of the student's fervor. "This is exactly what's happening. The authorities are pushing us into the streets," he confided later. "But at the same time, I am also saying that I am not calling on people to go into the streets

In a country where President Vladimir V. Putin's formidable centralization of power has raised doubts about whether anyone in the opposition has a chance to succeed him, Kasyanov's trip this week into the Volga River industrial belt was a milestone and a challenge.

Increasingly, political pundits are predicting a mere hiccup of an election when Putin's second term ends in 2008, with the opaque authorities behind the president and the ruling United Russia party expected to coalesce around a Putin clone who will be handed the presidency and the extraordinary power that goes with it.

Kasyanov's two-day trip into this region of auto manufacturers, oilfields and factory smokestacks marks the beginning of a move by advocates of greater democracy to make something more of the election. It also is an effort to head off mounting calls among radical youth groups for an uprising like the Orange Revolution that swept authorities from power last year in neighboring Ukraine.

Though he repeatedly refused to call his visit a campaign trip, Putin's former prime minister, fired two weeks before the 2004 election, repeatedly criticized the authoritarianism of the government, state control of the courts and media, Russia's continuing economic dependence on sales of oil and gas, and the growing reassertion of the state in the economy.

He called on opposition forces, pointedly including even the much-maligned Communist Party in the circle of his embrace, to stop squabbling and unite behind a candidate strong enough to challenge the ruling party, though not necessarily him.

"If we fall asleep, we may wake up in a different country," Kasyanov warned students at the University of Architecture and Construction. "I worked in this government for years, and I created the foundation for a new country, but instead things have started going in a different direction: backward.

"Russia is a European state, and these democratic principles must lie at the foundation of our country," he added. "Managed democracy is not democracy."

Unlike one fellow advocate of broader democracy, Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who has ventured into the regions outside Moscow criticizing Putin's politics, Kasyanov has not been beaten by the police, had tomatoes thrown at him by hostile crowds or traveled to events only to have his plane denied permission to land.

On the other hand, the prosecutor-general's office in July opened an investigation into Kasyanov's acquisition of a formerly state-owned dacha. The probe is widely seen as a warning and a potential tool to halt Kasyanov's presidential ambitions.

The 47-year-old former prime minister was shunned by regional leaders affiliated with the ruling party, and his trip was ignored by state-run television. Still, he was invited to tape an interview on local television and drew medium-sized crowds in three low-key meetings.

Some see this as evidence that the Kremlin is quietly approving his presidential bid in an attempt to make it look as if the opposition is being given free rein. But political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said Kasyanov presented a true danger to the ruling elite. Some of its members could flock to him should they become sufficiently disenchanted with Putin's entourage.

"Kasyanov is exactly the figure whose side at times of crisis part of the Russian establishment may well take," Piontkovsky said. "Some of them will support him out of their true democratic convictions, others will do so because they are very much dissatisfied with the irresponsible ... policies of the Putin regime."

In Samara, several business leaders agreed to meet with Kasyanov, whose pro-business policies were a hallmark of his years in government. But they met in secret for fear of retribution by local authorities.

"The fact that the meeting even took place is a positive sign," said Dmitry Yakovenko, president of a local group, Business Russia. "Because it indicates that despite the negative attitudes among government officials toward Kasyanov, people from the business world are not afraid of political persecution."

Several times, Kasyanov said, he was asked why he was starting to campaign so early. The next question, he said, would be why he had waited so long.

"We really have just one year to achieve a consensus on the way to approach this," he said. "There's not a lot of time left."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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