Election Officials Bar Putin's Ex-Premier From Presidential Race

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 28, 2008

MOSCOW, Jan. 27 -- Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a political opponent of President Vladimir Putin, was barred Sunday from running for president after the Central Election Commission said it had found tens of thousands of forged signatures among the 2 million gathered by his campaign to get his name on the ballot.

Opinion polls indicated that Kasyanov posed no political threat to Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the overwhelming favorite in the March 2 vote, and his disqualification will immediately raise questions about the Kremlin's willingness to face any competition or debate. As a candidate, Kasyanov would have enjoyed some access to state-controlled national television stations, which rarely mention him and then only to attack him as corrupt or declare him irrelevant.

Kasyanov alleged that the commission's decision was "made personally by Vladimir Putin," who fired him in 2004.

"The hopes that the political process will develop within the constitutional field have not been justified," Kasyanov said Sunday. "Those who think we are losers are wrong. In spite of all circumstances, we have won because we have held our honor and dignity, and we have done all we could in the current situation. Those who think our campaign is over are mistaken. Our campaign is just beginning."

The Central Election Commission said an examination of two large samples of the signatures gathered in behalf of Kasyanov found that more than 13 percent had been forged. If more than 5 percent of two samples are false, a candidate is automatically disqualified under Russia's electoral law.

"We made this decision based on the norms of law," said Elvira Yermakova, a commission member.

At a news conference Sunday, Kasyanov said that "there has been no forgery.

"The authorities are afraid of the people's will. They are denying us a chance for an honest political fight," he said.

Campaign officials said they had not decided whether to appeal Kasyanov's exclusion in the courts, which have no record of restraining the central authorities in politically charged cases.

Kasyanov was one of two candidates who needed to gather 2 million signatures to get on the ballot because they were not nominated by political parties with representation in the lower house of parliament.

The other such candidate, Andrei Bogdanov, head of the tiny Democratic Party, was officially registered last week after the Central Election Commission verified the signatures he had collected. Three other candidates -- Medvedev, communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- were automatically put on the ballot as the nominees of parties in parliament.

Political analysts said Bogdanov, whose party received only about 90,000 votes in the recent parliamentary elections, benefited from the quiet backing of the Kremlin, which wants to create the appearance of competition while ensuring that no one can effectively challenge Medvedev or even criticize him too severely.

Zhirinovsky said he was suspicious of how Bogdanov had amassed 2 million signatures -- vastly more than the number of votes that opinion polls suggest he will get in the election. A recent poll gave him 0.2 percent support.

"This could have made Kasyanov jealous, reasonably jealous in a way," Zhirinovsky said.

But Kasyanov received little sympathy among other candidates. Zyuganov told reporters Sunday that Kasyanov's disqualification "does not mean anything."

"Kasyanov had no chance at all," Zyuganov said. "The Orange leprosy, as in Ukraine, will not pass here."

Zyuganov was referring to the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine in 2004, which led to the election of a pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko. Some in the Communist Party here echo the Kremlin's sentiment that the street protests that swept Yushchenko to power resulted from Western machinations, not popular will. And Kasyanov, along with other opponents of the Kremlin, is routinely described as a puppet of the West.

Despite his indifference to Kasyanov's fate, Zyuganov has also complained of an unfair playing field, in particular state television's trumpeting of Medvedev and the difficulty of other candidates in getting coverage. Within the Communist Party, there has been debate about whether Zyuganov should withdraw his candidacy, but he has insisted he will fight on.

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