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Kremlin-Backed Opposition Party Foundering as Elections Loom

Russian President Vladimir Putin's disclosure this month that he would head the United Russia party's ticket undercut Fair Russia's electoral ambitions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's disclosure this month that he would head the United Russia party's ticket undercut Fair Russia's electoral ambitions. (By Alexander Zemlianichenko -- Associated Press)

"How can you criticize the body without criticizing its head, I mean the president, who tops the party list?" Timofeyev said in a speech this week in St. Petersburg. "I joined the party Fair Russia because of assurances from party leaders that President Putin would head the list of this party. But the president's choice is United Russia. I believe that the opinion of Vladimir Vladimirovich is final and indisputable. The decision of the president is a clear message: There is no need for this leg any longer."

Timofeyev was promptly expelled from Fair Russia for "actions discrediting the party."

Mironov and other party members have tried to put the best face on Putin's decision.

"As of today, we are truly an opposition party," Mironov told reporters the day after Putin informed a United Russia congress that he would lead the party at the polls. "And the president's support consists only of this: He agrees that Russia needs not only the right-wing United Russia but also a powerful socialist or social democratic party. And we don't need any more from him. The rest we'll do ourselves, relying on the support of our voters."

But Roisman, who quit Fair Russia this month, said thousands of members were now deserting the party, which many had seen as a life raft for those elements of the elite who could not find a slot to satisfy their ambitions in United Russia or elsewhere. Fair Russia leaders in Astrakhan, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk and Voronezh have recently left the party or defected to United Russia.

Roisman, a proven vote-getter, was destined for political extinction before he joined Fair Russia because of changes to the electoral law in advance of December's elections. Those changes eliminated the single-mandate constituencies in which a member could be elected based on the vote in one district and which produced independent deputies like him. Voters now choose from lists of registered parties.

"It might sound cynical, but I joined Fair Russia because I wanted to get back to the Duma and continue my work," he said in a phone interview.

Even before Putin's decision to head the United Russia ticket, Roisman said, he was disillusioned when the leaders of Fair Russia didn't put him on the ticket -- a decision that he said bowed to local United Russia interests because he represented a threat to their vote. Besides Roisman, a number of strong regional figures, notably Alexander Lebedev in Moscow, a longtime rival of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, were not chosen to run, either.

Meanwhile, Mironov placed a young novelist and political neophyte, Sergei Shargunov, near the top of the list, then removed him after it was revealed that he had a history of criticizing Putin.

"The party doesn't know what it stands for," Shargunov said in an interview.

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