Russian liberals accuse Putin over pre-poll speech

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian liberal party accused President Vladimir Putin of abusing his authority in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary election that is expected to consolidate his grip on power.

Putin heads the United Russia list of candidates in the poll which the pro-Kremlin party should win by a landslide, enabling him to exert political influence even after stepping down as president next year.

On Thursday, Putin used major television channels to appeal to the nation to vote for United Russia, causing an outcry from his few political opponents who accused him of abusing his clout as Kremlin chief to back a single party.

“I complained to the Central Election Commission about the president’s campaign speech on Thursday. I raised the question with the CEC on whether this speech had been paid for from United Russia’s election fund,” Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chairman of the liberal Yabloko party, told radio Ekho Moskvy.

“From my point of view, this was a flagrant violation of the legislation, an abuse of office in the interests of one party. I also demanded that other leaders, in particular Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, be given the same amount of time on Channels One, Two and Four.”

The Kremlin and United Russia could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mitrokhin’s comments were the latest expression of frustration and anger by Russian opposition figures who have seen their rallies broken up, their leaders detained and the air waves dominated by pro-Kremlin forces.

Senior United Russia figures have billed the election to the State Duma (lower house) as a referendum in support of Putin who has been in power in the Kremlin since 2000.

Most Russian voters credit the 55-year-old former KGB spy with restoring stability and economic growth after the chaos of the 1990s. Opinion polls indicate his party will pick up about 60 percent of the vote on Sunday, with its nearest rivals trailing far behind.

Putin says he wants a fair and transparent election. But his critics rule this out since opposition parties have only limited access to air waves and media which are under the control of the Kremlin and United Russia.

There were reports from many parts of Russia that employers were putting pressure on people to turn out and vote on Sunday by threatening them with disciplinary action.

Kremlin critics say these reports confirmed their suspicion that the vote will be skewed to ensure a big personal endorsement for Putin. Russian law states voting is voluntary.

DEFENDING PUTIN

Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov has defended Putin’s speech by saying that since the president is on the federal list of candidates for United Russia he has the right to publicly campaign for it.

Opinion polls show the Communists are the only party other than United Russia assured of exceeding the 7 percent threshold to qualify for seats in the new Duma.

Yabloko is one of several liberal parties expected to fall short of that threshold.

Last Saturday police broke up an anti-Putin rally in Moscow, giving opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov five days in detention. A day later, police beat hundreds of protesters to disperse a protest in St Petersburg.

As he left jail, Kasparov said “the regime is entering a dangerous phase of becoming a dictatorship”.

Putin says by choosing United Russia voters will opt for “stability and continuity” rather than the chaos of the 1990s.

He has accused Washington of trying to undermine the polls, said liberals were “slinking through foreign embassies” seeking funds and Russia needed to increase its defences to discourage others from “poking their snotty noses” in its affairs.

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