| BERLIN, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Russia's most prominent liberal
presidential election is a sham, and the country risks sliding towards
totalitarianism under the unchallenged grip of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin.
Grigory Yavlinsky, leader
of the pro-Western Yabloko party, told a Berlin audience on Thursday evening
that Russia had effectively reverted to a Soviet-style one-party parliament
after December elections in which liberals were virtually eclipsed.
Putin's main backer, the United Russia faction, controls two-thirds
seats in the legislature, the State Duma, and Yavlinsky said the other
parties there were indistinguishable from it on all major issues.
"Russia has no independent parliament any more," Yavlinsky
said in a bleak
lecture laced with dark humour.
He said the liberal camp, until now split between Yabloko and the Union
Right-Wing Forces, would try now to regroup and unite before the next
parliamentary elections in four years.
Yavlinsky did not rule out the possibility that Putin, who looks set
overwhelming victory in the March 14 presidential poll, would "keep
doors open" and maintain at least some freedom of political debate.
But he also saw a risk that Russia would follow a "very tough,
totalitarian course," or create a kind of fake democracy with only
appearance of a free justice system, financial markets and parliament.
"I think my country is very well qualified to make Potemkin villages,"
Yavlinsky said, referring to the courtier of Empress Catherine the Great
had elaborate fake villages constructed to impress her on tours of the
Yavlinsky fought two previous presidential elections, in 1996 and 2000,
even though he compared them to soccer matches in which the Kremlin side
manipulated the goalposts and fielded vastly more players than its
But he said the absence of an independent legal system and influential
independent media meant there were no longer any kind of "rules of
game," and made it pointless for him to run against Putin again in
"I'm sending a signal that it's not acceptable," he said.
Putin faces nine potential challengers. One -- Sergei Mironov, chairman
parliament's upper house -- has said he still supports the president.
Another, Oleg Malyshkin, is a former boxer and a political unknown from
party of maverick ultra-rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
"I can hardly imagine that Mr Putin is going to have a debate with
bodyguard of Mr Zhirinovsky," Yavlinsky said in an ironic commentary