The Sunday Telegraph reports on "President" Putin's continuing efforts to corrupt the Russian electoral process beyond hope of repair:
Opposition parties in Russia are accusing Vladimir Putin's Kremlin of mounting a concerted campaign to shut them out of forthcoming elections and squeeze the life out of the democratic process.
With seven days to go until regional elections, nine parties have already been barred from standing in one or more regions, and others are struggling to overcome the obstacles being placed in their path.
Small parties not currently represented in the national parliament claim that to qualify for the vote on March 11, they have been told they must put up a huge bond in advance or collect tens of thousands of signatures of support. They say that even when they meet the criteria, the government moves the goal posts.
The warnings come amid an increasingly bitter war of words between the United States and Russia over the direction in which Moscow is heading. Last week Mike McConnell, America's national intelligence director, accused Mr Putin of taking a backward step in the march towards democracy. He claimed Mr Putin had surrounded himself with "extremely conservative" advisers and was controlling the process of selecting Russia's next leader.
Next Sunday's contests in 14 regions are the last major electoral test before federal parliamentary elections in December and the vote to choose President Putin's successor a year from now.Under new legislation passed last year, nearly half of Russia's 35 parties had already been defined out of existence because they were too small. Some of them allege election rules have been twisted to consign them to the wilderness.
One liberal democratic party, Yabloko, was told it would need a deposit of 90 million roubles -about £1.8 million - just to stand in St Petersburg, a vast sum for a party without the support of big business or a wealthy oligarch. The alternative was to collect 35,000 signatures but the party says that when it achieved that goal, the regional election commission ruled out nearly 12 per cent of its signatures as invalid. A party faces disqualification if more than 10 per cent of its names are rejected.
In one case, officials said the signatures of two women, Margarita Korovyakina and Natalya Kravchenko, looked similar and that the same person had signed twice. Yabloko appealed to the central election commission in Moscow and the women made an eight-hour overnight train journey to the capital to attend the appeal hearing on February 9.
"I never felt so hopeless in my entire life," said Margarita Korovyakina, 45, a medical administrator. "I was staring at the officials in disbelief. In my presence, they decided that I am not a real person. I got up and tried to interrupt them. I said, 'Please allow me to speak' but they wouldn't let me. I realised then that any ordinary person in Russia is defenceless against the authorities. They can deny your very existence."
Another would-be Yabloko voter, Vitaly Sokolov, 78, a retired teacher, was told that although most of his address was on the official database, he was disqualified because his building number was not listed. "I have lived in this place for 35 years, and I find it outrageous," he said, pointing out that his address was also printed in his passport.
Yabloko's party leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, claimed that election authorities had been pressurised by the Kremlin and by key regional supporters of President Putin. "Elections where the strongest opposition party is denied participation are pseudo-elections, no better than those we had back in the Soviet era," he said.
The Kremlin has promised that next year's presidential election will be free and fair, and has claimed that opposition parties have only found themselves sidelined because they are unpopular with voters.
The head of the central election commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, denied any political bias.
"Yabloko simply had too many invalid signatures," he said. "If we had ignored the flawed lists - we would at once have been accused of acting out of political expediency, rather than sticking to the law."
Another liberal opposition party, the Union of Right Forces, has been disqualified in five out of 14 regions. Its leader, Nikita Belykh, claimed there had been pressure on election officials from the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.
Maria Matskevich, a political researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said both Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces had a history of asking tough questions."All this is annoying for the authorities," she said. "Regional governors apparently feel it is now time to terminate their access to regional parliaments."
The Telegraph continues the story with a second report on the Kremlin's attacks on the Governor of Archangelsk region (the Kremlin recently deposed the mayor of Vladivostok):
With Depeche Mode tinkling through the speakers, the man who would be Russia's next president jolts along the frozen streets of Arkhangelsk in a minibus.
Every day, Alexander Donskoi, must visit a local prosecutor and sign a form that keeps him out of prison.
The mayor of this snow-swept city in the country's far northwest does not look like the criminal type - at least no more so than any other official in Russia's notoriously corrupt regional administrations.
Indeed his supporters say he is guilty of nothing more than entertaining the ambition to head the world's largest country.Given that the vast majority of Russians have never even heard of him, most analysts say Mr Donskoi, 36, does not stand a chance of winning Russia's presidential elections this time next year.
But when he announced on November 1 that he was running for president, Russian officialdom appeared unwilling to give the rank outsider a sporting chance.
Within a month of his declaration Mr Donskoi had become the subject of a criminal investigation. Last week he was charged with faking his university diploma and abuse of office - offences that carry a two-year jail sentence.
Mr Putin, who constitutionally cannot run again having served two four-year terms, has promised a free and fair election on March 2 next year in which voters will have a genuine choice of candidates.
Few believe him. Russia has grown richer and more powerful since Mr Putin came to power in 2000, but his critics say that, under him, the country has grown steadily more autocratic.
The president has not publicly identified a successor - there are even rumours, which he consistently denies, that he plans to change the constitution and stay on - but it is widely expected that the transition of power will be a carefully micro-managed affair.
Mr Donskoi, currently the only candidate to have officially launched a presidential campaign, attributes his troubles to the Kremlin's desire to crush anyone who deviates from the succession script.
"Everyone understands what awaits you if you stand up to the system," he said. "There is this reflex reaction that if you become a presidential candidate something will be found to incriminate you."
When news leaked out that Mr Donskoi was about to call a press conference announcing his bid, the mayor says he received a call from the president's envoy to northwestern Russia, Ilya Klebanov.
"Klebanov told me I had to cancel the press conference, ordering me to pretend to be ill or even a lunatic," he said. "When I refused he told me I would face all sorts of problems and even a criminal prosecution."
Mr Klebanov was unavailable for comment. Prosecutors and the governor of Arkhangelsk declined to comment.
Ever since, Mr Donskoi maintains that his phones and office have been bugged - officials say they found a listening device in a socket - and his car has been followed.
He denies the charges, which mainly rest on an allegedly fake diploma found by prosecutors after an anonymous tip-off. One prosecution witness, speaking anonymously to The Daily Telegraph, said he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not testify against Mr Donskoi.
The mayor's defence lawyers say they will produce lecturers who will back up his claims that he graduated legitimately. They will also show he sold off his business interests within the legally specified time frame after he became mayor in 2005.
Even so, Mr Donskoi is convinced he is going to prison. "It's very hard for me to admit to you that I will be going to prison but I understand reality and I know the case will end like this," he said
At present the Kremlin has no serious mainstream opposition and being young and charismatic, unlike the potential candidates in Mr Putin's administration, Mr Donskoi could possibly pose a threat.However, the polls show that Mr Putin has maintained an approval rating of above 70 per cent and most Russians say that they will vote for whoever the president picks.