Pro-Putin governor makes surprise bid for presidency

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A little-known Russian governor who is a long-term ally of Vladimir Putin on Wednesday became the latest candidate to announce his plan to stand in March's presidential election.

His entry was the latest surprise after billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced his plans to run in a dramatic announcement Tuesday, despite being ousted as leader of Kremlin-backed pro-business party just months ago.

Dmitry Mezentsev, 52, has headed the Irkutsk region in eastern Siberia since 2009. But like Putin he grew up in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, and the two worked together in the 1990s.

Other politicians who intend to stand include Liberal Democrat leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia left-leaning party, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Grigory Yavlinsky of liberal Yabloko.

Balding with a moustache, Mezentsev began his career as a railway engineer before going into Soviet politics. He went on to work alongside Putin in the mayor's office in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s.

His presidential bid was backed by Russian Railways, a statement on the governor's website said. The vast organisation will help him gather the necessary two million signatures to stand as an independent.

"This is undoubtedly a huge honour for me," Mezentsev was quoted as saying He heads a region that recorded one of the lowest showings for United Russia in the polls with only 34.93% of the votes.

Experts said the governor was apparently standing to give the elections an appearance of legitimacy.

Mezentsev is "obviously not in competion with Putin," political analyst Rostislav Turovsky told Dozhd Internet television channel, saying that he wanted to "show the regional elites that he is strong and influential."

Mezentsev is the "insurance candidate," political analyst Alexei Makarkin told the RIA Novostoi news agency, saying he was apparently standing in case the truly opposition candidates pulled out of the poll to make it invalid.

"He's no oppositionist. He's fully loyal to Putin," Makarkin said.

Mezentsev hit the headlines in June when he kept an Aeroflot scheduled flight from Irkutsk waiting for an hour, and the pilot's indignant comments to air traffic control were leaked on YouTube.

© 2011 AFP

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