A man holds a poster saying "stop Putin" during an opposition… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Moscow — Hundreds of people turned out in Moscow's Pushkin Square on Saturday to protest the government's refusal to register a new party that seeks to unify Russia's fractured opposition.
The People's Freedom Party, known as PARNAS, was organized last winter by four of the country's most well-known opposition politicians, all former members of previous Russian governments: Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Vladimir Milov.
The often-amended legislation on political parties is difficult to follow and easy for bureaucrats to interpret the way they see fit: In the last four years, nine liberal parties have been denied registration on various technicalities.
Last week's rejection appeared no exception: The Justice Ministry found some flaws in the party's charter and detected some "dead souls" — dead people and youngsters not of age — registered among the required 45,000 membership.
The opposition called it a political decision by a Kremlin that doesn't want a strong opposition party on the ballot in December's parliamentary elections. Organizers alleged that the authorities harassed many party members across the country, compelling them to drop their names from the party lists.
The State Department promptly expressed its concern, urging Russian authorities "to investigate the reports of irregularities in the PARNAS registration process."
"We are troubled by reports of pressure from authorities in the regions designed to intimidate PARNAS supporters, prompting them to resign positions or disavow their signatures on required lists," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week on the State Department's website.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insisted he saw no political motives behind the decision and advised PARNAS leaders to correct the mistakes in the registration papers and try again.
Addressing the Pushkin Square crowd on a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon, Nemtsov said Kremlin officials didn't register the party because they were "mortally scared" of the competition. He called Medvedev's advice to correct the papers "an outright deception and hypocrisy."
"All over the country [the authorities] were summoning people and telling them to write a letter denying their party membership: Write this letter, please, they said, or else you will lose your jobs and your children will not be admitted at universities," Nemtsov said.
The opposition vowed to take the case to court. In April, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, overruled a 2007 decision in Russian courts to disband the Republican Party — organized by Ryzhkov, now one of the PARNAS four. Russian legislators are preparing a bill that would enable Russian courts to ignore the Strasbourg decisions in some cases.