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Monday, January 14, 2008

Will Kasyanov Make the Ballot?

The Moscow Times illustrates that dominating the parliament was not the only purpose of the Kremlin's blatant perversion of the recent Duma elections; as well, excluding all the opposition parties means that it becomes much more difficult (if not impossible) for them to field challengers in the presidential poll in March:

Alexei Dugin was cheerful despite the subzero temperatures and the nearly impossible task of challenging the Kremlin. It was late Thursday morning on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, and Dugin was looking for potential supporters for former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who must collect 2 million signatures by Wednesday in order to register as a presidential candidate.
"Everybody knows he's not going to become president," Dugin said. "But there's got to be some sort of competition if we want to be a democracy.

While most Russians tuned out of politics over the New Year's holiday, Kasyanov's supporters were busy gathering signatures, collecting 1.7 million as of Tuesday, according to his web site. By law, candidates have two ways to get on the ballot in the March 2 presidential election: They can be nominated by a political party in the State Duma, or they can submit 2 million signatures to the Central Elections Commission, which experts describe as a daunting -- but not impossible -- task. Adding to the difficulty, no more than 50,000 signatures can come from any one of Russia's 85 regions, and candidates have less than a month to collect the signatures.

"In principle, it's realistic," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, noting that liberal candidate Irina Khakamada and Rodina party co-founder Sergei Glazyev managed to do it in 2004. Back then, Khakamada and Glazyev delivered truckloads of signatures to the Central Elections Commission just hours before the deadline.

Kasyanov may cut it close too. The former prime minister's supporters plan to collect 2.4 million signatures, weed out the questionable ones, and submit 2.1 million by Wednesday, said Yelena Dikun, a Kasyanov spokeswoman. "We've been planning this for months," Dikun said. She said no signatures would be forged and no voters bribed -- practices that were alleged to have occurred ahead of past elections.

Besides Kasyanov, the other candidate seeking to get on the ballot by collecting signatures is Andrei Bogdanov, leader of the Democratic Party of Russia, a small liberal party widely seen as a Kremlin project to divide the opposition. Bogdanov's campaign manager, Vyacheslav Smirnov, announced this week that 2 million signatures had already been collected for the candidate -- a claim that prompted disbelief from some observers, especially since the DPR received less than 90,000 votes in last month's State Duma election. "Our support came from people who did not vote," Smirnov said by telephone Thursday. "This is more than half of the Russian population." Smirnov said most of Bogdanov's signatures had been collected by campaign workers going door to door. Many of the signature-collectors had worked for other parties in the Duma vote, including United Russia and the Communists, he added. DPR representatives have consistently denied that the party is backed by the Kremlin.

The candidate overwhelmingly favored to win the election, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, does not have to submit signatures because he has been nominated by two parties in the Duma, United Russia and A Just Russia. The two other candidates, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are also spared the signature requirement thanks to their parties' nominations. Of the five potential candidates, Kasyanov is by far the biggest outsider. Since being dismissed as prime minister in 2004, he has become a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, speaking regularly at anti-Kremlin street protests. Kasyanov's supporters claim that they have been subject to a harassment campaign masterminded by the Kremlin -- a charge the Kremlin denies. Among other things, they say their meetings have been disrupted when officials have shut down their planned meeting venues for fire-safety reasons.

Similar troubles have allegedly plagued Kasyanov's signature-gathering campaign. In Pskov and Rostov-on-Don, no notaries agreed to confirm the validity of his signatures, Kasyanov said during a visit to Samara this week, Interfax reported. Dikun said the main problem has simply been ignorance among voters. "In many cases, our signature collectors have had to inform people that there is an election scheduled for March 2," she said. The biggest question mark hanging over Kasyanov's campaign, however, is whether the Central Elections Commission will approve him as a candidate. Many experts believe that if the Kremlin does not want him as a candidate, the elections commission will reject his signatures on technical grounds.

Elections commission chief Vladimir Churov said this week that the 4 million signatures expected to come in from Kasyanov and Bogdanov would be inspected by a team of specialists from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and the Defense Ministry, Interfax reported. "These are professional experts," Churov said in a radio interview. The commission has until Jan. 27 to announce whether the signatures are valid, which will finalize the list of candidates. The same day, Kasyanov's supporters are planning to hold a Dissenters' March street protest. Dikun said the protest was meant to pressure the authorities to "guarantee a free election," but she did not link it to the commission's deadline.

In the meantime, Kasyanov's foot soldiers are focused on reaching the 2 million mark. That seemed like a distant goal at Triumfalnaya Ploshchad on Thursday morning, where only a small trickle of pedestrians were stopping by a van lined with Kasyanov posters. Dugin said he was getting about 100 signatures per day, mostly from people fed up with the Kremlin's monopoly on power.

"He's the only non-Kremlin candidate," Dugin said.

A reader writes: "Of course another take on the Kozlovsky abduction is that this was timed deliberately to divert the energy of the opposition as well as removing one of their key campaigners, at a time when they need every bit of help they can to get their two million signatures. The sophistication of their evil never ceases to amaze me. I have a Russian friend who refers to the Kremlin/KGB/Putin inc as "Mordor". The description is apt."

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