Opposition Leaders: Moscow Undermining Elections

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Russian opposition leaders say officials are banning their parties from taking part in local elections across the country next month. They say their candidates are being struck off ballots on technicalities. They say this is the Kremlin's latest assault against democracy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Opposition leaders in Russia say the authorities are banning their parties from taking part in local elections across the country next month. They say their candidates are being struck off ballots on technicalities, in part because of the Kremlin's latest assault against democracy in Russia. I'll speak to a prominent opposition leader in a moment.

First, this report from NPR's Gregory Feifer in Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Opposition parties say they're being barred from taking part in local elections in 14 regions. Among them is the liberal Yabloko Party, which says it was disqualified in St. Petersburg because officials said some of the 40,000 signatures it collected for registration were forgeries.

(Soundbite of crowd)

FEIFER: On Sunday, Yabloko's supporters protested by briefly blocking St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. Earlier, at a small Moscow rally, Yabloko deputy chairman Sergei Mitrokhin said officials are trying to remove the last remaining opponents of the country's two main pro-Kremlin parties.

Mr. SERGEI MITROKHIN (Yabloko Party): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Candidates haven't been obstructed in such a crude way and on such a scale before, he said, and for such clearly fabricated reasons.

Since coming to office in the year 2000, President Vladimir Putin has canceled elections of the country's regional governors in favor of Kremlin appointments. Members of parliament are elected, but the Duma is controlled by a pro-Kremlin majority, whose critics say functions only to rubber-stamp Kremlin-issued bills. Russia's liberal parties left their seats in parliament in 2003 in elections observers said weren't free and fair.

Boris Nemtsov, a former leader of the liberal Right Forces Party, says Putin already fully controls the election process.

Mr. BORIS NEMTSOV (Right Forces Party): He has 100 percent of chances to kill everybody from opposite side, not kill physically but politically - I hope.

FEIFER: Independent legislator Vladimir Ryzhkov agrees the Kremlin's measures have left the opposition virtually powerless against the Kremlin.

Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Independent Legislator): (Through translator) We're losing the battle for Democratic freedom. We've been unable to increase press freedom, register opposition parties, or have free elections.

FEIFER: Opposition parties say the latest crackdown is aimed at giving the Kremlin even greater control ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election next year. Russia's constitution bars Putin from running for a third term.

At a news conference earlier this month, Putin promised free and Democratic elections next year, but also called for greater central control over politics.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) The main task for Russia is for it to continue its rapid development. And that won't be possible without the consolidation of all branches of power on all levels in the center and in the regions.

FEIFER: Many Russians believe the Kremlin is so powerful, any favored candidate Putin names will be all but certain to succeed him next March.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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