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A new revolution urged in Russia

Opposition groups hope to defeat Putin's pick in next year's presidential election. Authorities appear to be on edge.

July 07, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now an opposition leader engaged in a high-stakes political match with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, gamely put the best face on a modest turnout at a recent protest rally.

"There could have been many more people here if the authorities did not oppress people so much," Kasparov told a crowd of about 1,500 at the mid-June rally in a downtown Moscow park. "The authorities feel instinctively that if they allow people to march, there will be 1,000, then 10,000, then 20,000, and then everyone will come to the street."

City officials had refused permission for a march to follow the rally, and there were more police in attendance than protesters. In April, police arrested hundreds of demonstrators from the same coalition, Other Russia, when they sought to stage an unauthorized march.

Kasparov and his allies appear at times to be trying to trigger what some have lightheartedly dubbed a "White Knight" revolution -- a democratic ousting of the incumbent power structure following in the footsteps of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution.

The chess master and others say they are aiming at nothing less than winning the presidential election in March 2008.

Putin consistently enjoys popularity ratings above 70%, but the Constitution requires him to step down next spring at the end of his second term. Most observers believe that voters, heavily influenced by state-controlled television, will endorse whomever Putin selects as his preferred successor.

Likely contenders

The two contenders seen as most likely to win the Kremlin's nod are First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei B. Ivanov, who after many months of favorable coverage on state-controlled TV are now the country's most popular politicians after Putin.

The most visible potential opposition candidate is former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, who served during Putin's first term. He turned against his former boss after being dismissed shortly before Putin's 2004 reelection and now heads the People's Democratic Union.

Kasyanov, a founding leader of Other Russia, said Monday that the coalition had "fulfilled its mission," and implied that he was pulling out of it. The move appeared to mark a bid for top leadership of an even broader opposition coalition that would choose him as its candidate.

Kasyanov is "a very experienced and skilled negotiator" and he "will continue negotiations and consultations with other opposition forces with the goal to unite around a single candidate," Tatyana Razbash, spokeswoman for Kasyanov, said Tuesday.

Authorities appear nervous about the opposition. For the unauthorized April march in Moscow, 9,000 police officers were called out to control 3,000 protesters.

Range of complaints

The mid-June rally brought together demonstrators from across the political spectrum, including entrepreneurs, former Soviet-era dissidents, students, unhappy pensioners and flag-waving activists from a group that used to be called the National Bolshevik Party but was banned in the spring.

"Everyone has their own personal complaint," Kasparov said. "Issues related to tiny pensions, inflation, lack of freedom, lack of security."

Businessman Mikhail Kriger, 47, said he attended "to express disagreement over a lot of things in the life of my country that affect my life."

"I want to see real news on our television," he said. "I want to elect people in parliament who will really protect the interests of the people and not of a small group of corrupt individuals."

He also complained about the long war that Moscow fought against separatists in Chechnya, expressing fear that someday his son could be sent off to "another war that only suits their selfish goals."

Kriger compared the rally with the minuscule opposition shown by Muscovites when the Soviet army moved into Afghanistan nearly three decades ago.

"In 1979, only a dozen people came out to Red Square to protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, and most thought their protest was useless," he said. "But a decade later hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets and squares of Moscow, and they toppled the regime."

Regime-toppling through elections was the focus of a June conference by Kasyanov's group.

The former prime minister delivered a speech endorsing a wish list of popular policies, including massive housing subsidies, a return to free healthcare and free higher education, an end to the military draft, the defeat of inflation, encouragement of entrepreneurship, a crackdown on corruption, modernization of the country's transport system, production of modern weapons for the army and tax cuts.

He implied that the many costly items on that list could be paid for through wiser use of the country's oil and tax revenues.

Kasyanov also took aim at the tough line Moscow has taken with its neighbors and the West during Putin's second term.

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