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AFP, March 3, 2004

Russian opposition leader attacks Putin's choice of new PM

Prominent Russian opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky Wednesday attacked Vladimir Putin's choice of new prime minister, saying he only served to further reinforce the president's power.

"The government will just be his office," he said here. "It will have no political significance."

Putin ended more than a week of speculation Monday by nominating Mikhail Fradkov to replace Mikhail Kasyanov ahead of the March 14 presidential election.

Yavlinsky, head of the Yabloko liberal opposition party in Moscow's parliament, said the appointment indicated "a considerable strengthening of Vladimir Putin's power and possibilities."

Fradkov has until now been Moscow's envoy to the European Union. Asked by journalists at the European Parliament during a visit to Brussels, Yavlinsky said Putin had already concentrated much power in his own hands.

"There is no independent parliament or independent legal system in Russia today, no control by the public over the security services," he charged.

Putin has come in for widespread criticism for accumulating so much power and dominating the media.

In Moscow liberal Russian journalists and lawmakers led by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov on Tuesday urged the public to boycott the forthcoming presidential election, describing it as a farce.

The group called on challengers to Putin, who is all but certain to be reelected for a second mandate in the March 14 poll, to quit the race.

"Those who are aware of their civic duties and cherish their dignity as citizens cannot and must not take part in such a farce," said the 2008 Free Elections group said in a statement broadcast on Moscow radio station.

Yavlinksy was being interviewed in Brussels on the margin of a European liberals' conference on the EU's foreign relations after it accepts 10 new mainly eastern European members in two months.

Graham Watson, head of the European Parliament's liberal group, Wednesday criticised the allegedly soft attitude of EU members towards Russia.

"An enlarged European Union has to get real with Russia," he told the conference. "We can no longer afford to indulge Russia's vanishing political pluralism in silence.

EU statements "protesting our shared values have frankly begun to look sloppy, or naive, or just downright cynical. Either President Putin's Russia values free media and a functioning democracy, or it does not.

"It is my hope that the new member-states - who know authoritarianism when they see it - will encourage a new frankness in EU-Russia affairs."

The newcomers include the Baltic republics which were once constituent Soviet republics, plus Poland, Hungary the Czech Republic and Slovakia which were members of the former Soviet bloc.

The European Commission Monday welcomed Putin's nomination of Fradkov, saying it would help strengthen Russia-EU ties.

"This is a positive signal of the importance that Russia attaches to relations with the EU. Mr Fradkov has deep knowledge of the EU and his appointment will certainly facilitate... understanding between us," said a spokesman.

The Russian Duma or lower house of parliament will Friday debate Putin's choice of Fradkov for prime minister but there is no doubt it will approve him.


AFP, March 3, 2004

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