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Reuters, January 9, 2004

Russian liberal fears slide to authoritarian rule

By Mark Trevelyan

BERLIN, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Russia's most prominent liberal says March's 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 of 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 of 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 for an overwhelming victory in the March 14 presidential poll, would "keep the doors open" and maintain at least some freedom of political debate.

But he also saw a risk that Russia would follow a "very tough, very totalitarian course," or create a kind of fake democracy with only the 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 who had elaborate fake villages constructed to impress her on tours of the provinces.

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 opponents.

But he said the absence of an independent legal system and influential independent media meant there were no longer any kind of "rules of the game," and made it pointless for him to run against Putin again in March.

"I'm sending a signal that it's not acceptable," he said.

Putin faces nine potential challengers. One -- Sergei Mironov, chairman of parliament's upper house -- has said he still supports the president. Another, Oleg Malyshkin, is a former boxer and a political unknown from the party of maverick ultra-rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"I can hardly imagine that Mr Putin is going to have a debate with the bodyguard of Mr Zhirinovsky," Yavlinsky said in an ironic commentary on the election campaign.


See also:

Presidential elections 2004

Reuters, January 9, 2004

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