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Putin critic is out of contest

Ex-Premier Kasyanov is barred from race for Russian presidency on charges of forgery.

January 28, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The most outspoken opposition politician vying for the Russian presidency was thrown out of the race Sunday, accused by elections officials of forging tens of thousands of signatures.

The disqualification of former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov was immediately decried by opposition figures and analysts, who said the decision was a politically motivated attempt to silence a vocal critic of the government and maintain an image of uncontested Kremlin popularity.

Russia's Central Election Commission accused Kasyanov's campaign of forging more than 80,000 of the signatures needed to get onto the ballot, and the panel unanimously voted to disqualify him from the race. Running as an independent, Kasyanov needed a minimum of 2 million signatures in order to register as a candidate for the presidency.

On Sunday, Kasyanov denied any forgery, and accused President Vladimir V. Putin of blocking him from the race.

"I have no doubt that Putin personally made the decision not to register my candidacy," he said in a statement.

The presidential race has been widely viewed as a fait accompli since the popular and powerful Putin anointed longtime friend and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor. After last month's endorsement, Medvedev signaled that Putin would become prime minister in the new government, and began to roam the country to drum up public support.

Despite Kasyanov's claims that he could capture a quarter of the vote, he wasn't regarded as a serious obstacle to a Med- vedev victory. He served as prime minister in the early years of Putin's presidency and emerged as a critic of the Kremlin only after being fired from the government in 2004.

Still, analysts said, the Kremlin was determined to carry out a smooth transition and was leery of giving a platform to a well-spoken candidate who was apt to make sharp criticisms.

"They think that Medvedev should be inevitable, unavoidable," said Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute. "The presence of such a person as Kasyanov would seed some doubt in the minds of the constituents, and that's something the Kremlin can't afford."

An incensed Kasyanov told reporters in Moscow that Russia was slipping toward authoritarianism. He urged voters to boycott the election in protest.

"The authorities were afraid of an open battle," he said. "I call on citizens not to vote, not to take part in this farce. The authorities are scared of the people, and so they prevented me from running."

Besides Medvedev, three candidates will appear on the March 2 ballot. Two of the politicians are perceived as cooperative with the Kremlin's wishes. The third, Communist Party chief Gennady A. Zyuganov, is not expected to collect enough votes to mount a serious challenge to Medvedev.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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