Russia opposition party denied chance to run in polls

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Russian authorities on Wednesday refused to register an opposition party known for its fierce criticism of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, denying it an opportunity to take part in upcoming polls.

The decision by the justice ministry surprised few in Russia, where it is seen as a litmus test of the Kremlin's willingness to tolerate dissenters ahead of crucial parliamentary polls in December and presidential elections in March.

Last month, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and several other politicians submitted documents to register a new opposition party they dubbed the People's Freedom Party, known in Russian under its acronym Parnas.

"The regime is deathly afraid of the opposition," said party co-chairman Nemtsov, adding that seven opposition parties have been denied registration recently.

The justice ministry said it would not register the party because it had found a number of violations in its application including the use of phantom members.

"The party's documents contain data about members of the public who died before the party's founding convention on December 13, 2010," the justice ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also said it had received a number of complaints from Russians saying they were not members of Parnas.

Kremlin critics have said authorities use various technicalities to deny opposition parties registration, essentially robbing them of an opportunity to field candidates for polls.

By Russian law, unregistered parties cannot field candidates in elections.

Nemtsov, speaking on the popular Echo of Moscow radio, said the party would not appeal the decision because it was political.

"Going to court would mean being a loser. This decision is outside the realm of law."

The opposition accuses the Kremlin of stifling political freedoms and denying it the right to gather for peaceful demonstrations.

"The upcoming elections cannot be considered free and the Russian authorities will continue to go along the path of violating the constitution and the country's international obligations," Parnas leader Kasyanov said in a statement.

"I am sorry that Putin has made a decision not to allow our party to participate in the elections. He is obviously afraid of risks."

Nemtsov said the decision meant that trying to field a single opposition candidate for the March presidential vote would be meaningless, and that the party would instead seek to bring its supporters on to the streets.

Opposition leaders are frequently harassed in Russia. Nemtsov said earlier this month that unknown assailants had damaged his Range Rover by throwing a toilet bowl on the car when it was parked in central Moscow.

President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview released this week that political competition was necessary.

Nemtsov dismissed Medvedev's statements, calling the Kremlin's frequently tweeting chief a "blogger and dreamer."

Putin, Medvedev's senior partner in the ruling tandem, last December accused the opposition of stealing "billions" while in power in past years.

"What do they want? Money and power. They have been pulled away from the trough, they've spent all they had, now they would like to return and line their pockets."

Many commentators said they were befuddled by Wednesday's decision as Russia's fragmented opposition stands virtually no chance of mounting any serious challenge to the Kremlin during elections anyway.

"This is the continuation of the earlier, absolutely criminal policies in relation to the country," Georgy Satarov, head of the Indem think tank, said on Echo of Moscow radio.

© 2011 AFP

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