October 7, 2009 / 12:53 PM / 8 years ago

Opposition despairs as Moscow 'tightens the screws'

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov speaks during an interview with Reuters correspondent in Moscow, September 24, 2009.Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two leading opposition figures say they have given up on Russia's election system altogether ahead of regional polls on Sunday, saying it makes a mockery of President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to boost democracy.

Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, now a banking and media tycoon, told Reuters that the campaign for Moscow city council elections had helped convince them it no longer made sense to run for office.

Some 30 million Russians are due to vote on Sunday in a series of regional elections, but the focus will be on Moscow, where the capital is holding its first polls since Medvedev came to power in May last year.

"In all of the last 10 years they have tightened the screws and the last year is no different," said Ilya Yashin, one of a dozen opposition figures denied registration as independents. "The political stage has been cleared."

Kremlin officials say that nobody wants to support the opposition because it has failed to offer voters a convincing alternative to successful government policies.

Opinion polls predict the pro-Western opposition will lose the last of its seats on the Moscow council, which controls a $40 billion budget. It also has the power to approve or veto Kremlin appointees as Moscow's mayor, a position held since 1992 by Yuri Luzhkov.

"In Soviet times elections were decorations, now they are imitations," said Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko party, the only pro-Western opposition group standing in Moscow. "In Russia every election is worse than the one before."

KREMLIN PLEDGE

Medvedev has pledged to strengthen Russian democracy, which critics say was undermined by his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now prime minister. But the opposition says the situation has deteriorated since Medvedev came to power in May 2008.

"New democratic times are beginning," Medvedev said in August, promising to break the near-monopoly of ruling party United Russia over the political system -- something which has not happened.

Six parties are registered for Sunday's Moscow vote, but the only posters in the city are for United Russia and the central electoral commission, which use similar colours and fonts.

Sixty-two percent of Muscovites polled by the Levada centre described the vote as "simply an imitation of a battle" and said they expected the seats to be distributed by the authorities.

"There's no one to choose from," said 30-year-old bank worker Ira Gaidarova, who vowed not to vote.

The Kremlin blamed local officials, saying it had failed to convince Luzhkov, a prominent member of the ruling party, to liberalise Moscow elections.

"Moscow authorities are not ready to live under new standards," Medvedev's chief spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters this week. "We will continue encouraging them."

Alexander Lebedev, a banking entrepreneur and owner of Russia's main opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said the opposition was "weak and demoralised" after a year under Medvedev.

A series of poorly attended but high-profile opposition marches in 2007 were broken up by police, but demonstrations have been subdued since the pro-Western opposition lost its last seats in parliament in elections that year.

Lebedev ran against Luzhkov in elections for Moscow mayor in 2003 and spent a few years as a pro-government deputy before leaving and setting up a new opposition movement.

He said the rejection of his registration in an election in April this year for the mayor of 2014 Winter Olympic host city Sochi helped convince him to give up his electoral ambitions.

"Sochi was the last piece of evidence that the electoral system in this country has evaporated for any independent politician," he said. "There is no election. This is just Luzhkov appointing people."

Kasyanov, who failed in his bid to stand against Medvedev in 2008, said he came to the conclusion that participation in elections was "simply impossible" when authorities blocked a dozen independent candidates he was backing for the Moscow vote.

"We have no influence over what is going on at all," he said. "Our work is simply to give citizens the possibility of alternative points of view."

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