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AFP, December 21, 2003

Demoralised Russian liberals boycott presidential race

Russia's main liberal party said Sunday it would boycott next year's presidential elections, joining the protest of the other wing of the democratic opposition crushed in recent legislative polls.

Two-time Russian presidential candidate, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, announced after a two-day party congress that his party had decided in a vote not to field a candidate for the March 14 elections.

"The current political situation in Russia is such that free, fair and genuinely competitive elections are not possible. In these conditions, the party considers it impossible to put forward its candidate," said Yavlinsky.

The Yabloko no-show followed the example of another major liberal party, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), whose leaders announced on Saturday that it would not take part in the poll.

SPS leaders said that the dominant state-controlled media was too deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin and that the liberal opposition stood no chance in the upcoming elections.

Yavlinsky echoed this complaint, saying: "There is no point in participating in the elections when you cannot put across your point of view or address the electorate."

The walkout by liberal forces is likely to be embarassing for Putin, affecting the international legitimacy of the poll, but analysts say the two small parties themselves will suffer the most from their political exclusion.

Pro-Putin factions swept to power in a December 7 vote to the State Duma lower house of parliament. The Kremlin now holds a majority in the chamber that could allow it to alter the Russian constitution.

Both SPS and Yabloko lost most of their Duma seats and have only a handful of representatives in the 450-seat chamber, down from nearly 50 in the previous legislature.

They have argued for years over joining forces -- as both are emblems of the post-Soviet struggle to introduce Western economic reforms and modern values on human rights -- but have failed.

The overwhelmingly popular Putin used a national television address to announce Thursday that he would run again.

SPS party members have not yet officially endorsed the decision to boycott the poll.

But SPS leader Boris Nemtsov, who signed a statement Saturday urging non-participation in the election, commented on Yabloko's decision by saying that it was regrettable the two parties had not managed to field a single candidate.

Yavlinsky expressed the hope that the democratic forces could unite, but pointedly did not mention SPS by name.

"Yabloko has set the aim of forming a major party in the next four years which will act as the democratic opposition. We will cooperate with all other democratic forces," he said.

The main opposition Communist party, which was heavily defeated by supporters of Putin in the parliamentary elections, backtracked last week on a threat to boycott the March presidential poll.

"I don't know what motivated Yavlinsky's decision, but I believe you have to take part in the elections," top Communist party member Alexander Kuvayev told Echo Moscow radio.

A nationalist politician whose party stormed to a surprising success in the parliamentary poll, gaining more than nine percent of the votes, branded the liberals' protest as a "self-withdrawal" from the political scene.

"This will mark the end of their political career," Dmitry Rogozin, co-leader of Rodina (Motherland), told the Interfax news agency.

Recent opinion polls gave Putin an approval rating of up to 80 percent, suggesting that he would sweep to victory. His nearest potential rivals, including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, draw a maximum rating of around five percent.


See also:

Presidential elections 2004

State Duma elections 2003

AFP, December 21, 2003

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