Russian Politics to Shift in Post-Putin Era

The next parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia won't take place until 2007 and 2008, respectively. Yet campaigning for both contests already has begun. President Vladimir Putin is not eligible to run again, and that's creating possibilities for other candidates.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to go next to Russia where some political campaigns are well under way, even though Russia's next parliamentary elections are not scheduled until 2007, and the presidential vote doesn't take place until the following year. It's never too really. Opposition parties are trying to get organized and to articulate their views on talk radio, but the Kremlin seems to be finding creative ways to neutralize any challengers, as NPR's Martha Wexler reports from Moscow.

MARTHA WEXLER reporting:

Under current Russian law, Vladimir Putin can't run for re-election as president of Russia again. As yet, there aren't any serious candidates to succeed him. Last February, his former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, hinted that he might want to run and he had harsh words for the policies of his former boss. Now Kasyanov is under criminal investigation.

Unidentified Man: (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: A Russian prosecutor explained that the former prime minister is suspected of improper acquisition of real estate. The Kremlin isn't taking any chances with parliamentary elections either. The pro-Putin United Russia party that currently controls the Duma recently pushed through a new election law that makes it harder for small parties to win seats. Analyst Yuri Fyodorov says the Kremlin is nervous.

Mr. YURI FYODOROV (Analyst): After the events in Ukraine, in my understanding, what are the top echelons of Russia's political elite are really panicked. They're afraid of mass protest rallies, which may have unpredictable results.

WEXLER: And Fyodorov says this is why the Kremlin has now targeted the opposition Rodina, or Homeland party, best known for its nationalist views. Homeland made a surprisingly strong showing in local elections last year. Fyodorov and other political watchers here say the Kremlin encouraged a renegade Homeland politician to form his own faction under the same name. Fyodorov says the intent was to sow confusion at the polls.

Mr. FYODOROV: Well, ...(unintelligible) two regular parties' rank-and-file person will be absolutely disoriented ...(unintelligible).

WEXLER: Russians see some irony in this. They say it was the Kremlin that created Homeland in the first place to lure voters away from the still-strong Communist Party. Now the leader of the original Homeland party, Dmitry Rogozin, is challenging his former sponsors in the Kremlin.

Mr. DMITRY ROGOZIN (Homeland): (Through Translator) We believe the main problem in Russia is that state power is weak. And it is weak because it is absolutely corrupted. That's the difference between us and United Russia.

WEXLER: If Putin's inner circle is trying to curb Rogozin's Homeland party, as many observers allege, the measures pale in comparison to the recent moves against other opponents. The government simply banned the National Bolshevik Party, a more marginal group, that combines nationalism with calls for social justice. Dozens of National Bolshevik members are on trial for an act of civil disobedience, entering a government building without permission. They face five years in prison. Then there's the tale of chess champion Garry Kasparov and his misadventures on a recent tour of the provinces. Kasparov believes it's hopeless to form another political party, so instead he's drumming up support for a non-partisan United Civil Front.

Mr. GARRY KASPAROV (Chess Champion): (Through Translator) We have to unite people of all political stripes who understand what a threat the Putin regime poses. We have the simplest political program. We want free elections, freedom of address, independent courts.

WEXLER: Kasparov had to struggle to deliver this message on his tour. The airport in the southern city of Rustov refused to let his plane land. Restaurants wouldn't serve him. Hotels said they had no rooms. And he was constantly followed. Children threw eggs at him. As for the traditional liberal camp of professional politicians here, they continue to squabble, but one young independent Duma deputy, Vladimir Ryzhkov, still hopes to unify the so-called democrats.

Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Independent Duma Deputy): (Through Translator) You know, de Gaulle once said if a person agrees with you 80 percent, he's your ally. Our democratic parties agree on 90 percent of the issues and still remain enemies. I think it's a matter of political culture.

WEXLER: And as long as that remains the culture in Moscow, it will benefit President Vladimir Putin and United Russia.

Martha Wexler, NPR News, Moscow.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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