Russian Candidates Leap Toward Putin Parties

Critics of Russia's President Vladimir Putin say he helped bring back authoritarianism back to Russia, with the Kremlin consolidating its control. As campaigning gets under way for December parliamentary elections, legislators are responding to tough new elections laws by flocking to join pro-Kremlin parties. Observers say it may be the last major political realignment of the Putin era.

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Political parties in Russia are jockeying for position ahead of parliamentary elections in December. But with nearly all the parties supporting President Vladimir Putin, critics say there's no real choice for Russian voters.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Viktor Poch Milken has a problem. The veteran liberal legislator recently lost his spot on the ballot of the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia Party to an actor who's appeared in a blockbuster film that has no experience in politics. Poch Milken says that's typical of what's happening to the country's political parties.

Mr. VIKTOR POCH MILKEN (Russian Legislator): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: The process has become completely commercialized, he said. Parties are horse-trading places on their ballots, attracting popular personalities and getting rid of experienced legislators who represent people's interests.

A former independent member of parliament, Poch Milken have recently joined Fair Russia only because new electoral regulations ban independent candidates from running. The new rules also make it harder for all parties to qualify for seats.

Pollsters say that probably means only four parties will be able to win seats in December, three of them are pro-Kremlin.

Inside the austere Stalinist Duma Building, a stone's throw from the Kremlin, there's plenty of activity on the marble main stairs. But opposition groups say parliament's actions are irrelevant because they only rubberstamp Kremlin decisions. The Duma's most powerful group, United Russia, is calling its election platform Putin's plan, a term reminiscent of Soviet-era slogans. According to one poll, United Russia is expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote.

Liberal Yabloko Party leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, who lost his seat four years ago, says the Kremlin's new legislation is aimed at crushing opposition groups.

Mr. GRIGORY YAVLINSKY (Liberal Yabloko Party leader): Because it's a very high level of administrative control. It's a very bureaucratic approach - how many people we can have in the party? Who can be in the party? The inspectors are coming at night to the people and asking them, what party you are member?

FEIFER: But not all pro-Kremlin parties can count on winning enough votes, and fierce competition is raging to attract big names. The ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party has gone so far as to accept murder suspect, Andrei Lugovoi as a member. Lugovoi is wanted in Britain on suspicion of poisoning former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Members of parliament have immunity from prosecution in Russia.

Asked if it's appropriate for Lugovoi to serve in parliament, the party's mercurial leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, exploded in a tirade against Britain.

Mr. VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY (Co-Founder, Liberal Democratic Party): (Through translator) You killed Litvinenko. Your Prime Minister Tony Blair. And you have the nerve to ask whether Lugovoi should run for parliament? Britain is the most insolent country in the world. You keep the whole world soaked in blood and the whole world will hate you.

FEIFER: But even such patriotic performances may not be enough to enable Zhirinovsky's party to qualify for seats this year, while opposition groups say they haven't been allowed to campaign in some regions across Russia. And when an anti-Kremlin movement called Other Russia recently held a conference in Moscow, hecklers outside the auditorium's doors played a requiem.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: The protesters were members of a pro-Kremlin youth group who confidently predicted Other Russia's coalition would fall apart, and indeed, it did. Analysts say it's just one victim of the Kremlin's successful drive to silence any sign of opposition.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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