| MOSCOW (AP) - Human rights groups, liberal politicians
and protesters on
Wednesday again denounced an upcoming presidential election as unfair,
saying the Kremlin had all but orchestrated President Vladimir Putin's
return to power.
One group that has been highly critical of the vote - and the lavish
attention Putin has received recently - repeated calls for a boycott,
saying the only way for Russians to show their dissatisfaction would be
drive voter turnout below the required 50 percent minimum.
"Low turnout is what (authorities) are most afraid of and that
is exactly what we should do," said journalist Viktor Shenderovich,
a leader of Committee 2008: Free Choice, a group that has called for voters
to stay home.
The election "can be compared to a soccer game, which has no goal,
no ball and no field - just the score on the scoreboard, and you are being
invited to watch the score," said Grigory
Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party.
Several hundred people decried the upcoming vote at an anti-Putin rally
in the center of the Russian capital. Liberals, communists and radicals
held signs reading "Russia without Putin" or "Stop the
war in Chechnya."
``We live in poverty, freedom of speech is being stifled, the FSB (the
successor agency to the KGB) is ruling the country - that is why I will
never vote for Putin,'' said Valentina, a 78-year-old retiree at the rally
who refused to give her last name.
A dozen young Putin supporters also attended, holding signs reading
off our president.''
Putin is all but certain to win Sunday's presidential vote. He faces
opponents who aren't expected to draw more than single-digit support.
``Election results have increasingly reflected the will of officials
the Kremlin down to municipal authorities - rather than the will of
citizens,'' said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Liberal presidential candidate Irina Khakamada criticized the proposed
boycott and urged liberals to vote for her to prevent the vote from being
what she called ``the last election.''
Meeting a group of Olympic athletes Wednesday, Putin said he carried
spirit of sportsmanship into the vote. ``My coaches in sports always taught
me to treat other competitors with respect,'' he said.
Also Wednesday, Yavlinsky said his party will contest results of the
December parliament vote, suing in 78 regional courts to annul votes from
170 of Russia's 225 regional election commissions. The party claims nearly
half a million votes were inaccurate.
The president has just finished a Cabinet reshuffle that was widely
an effort to enliven the race and to recruit staunch loyalists whom he
Putin's reform nearly halved the number of Cabinet seats, but most
ministries and federal agencies will survive under new names and maintain
their full staff, the nation's new prime minister said Wednesday.
Putin's new premier, Mikhail Fradkov, insisted Wednesday the reshuffle
aimed at creating a more efficient administration in order to make Russia
more competitive on the global market - the latest Kremlin mantra.
``Competitiveness is the key goal,'' Fradkov said at his first news
conference, beginning his comments to reporters by addressing them as
While emphasizing the focus on speeding up growth and enhancing economic
efficiency, Fradkov acknowledged most of the disbanded ministries will
continue to exist under new names. ``It's very important to preserve
continuity,'' he said.
State Duma elections 2003