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Russia: For Some, Dark Horse Remains In The Shadows

Andrei Bogdanov's Democratic Party won 0.13 percent in the Duma elections (ITAR-TASS) When Russia's Central Election Commission released its final list of candidates for the March presidential election, most of the names were familiar.

President Vladimir Putin's anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, was on the list, as were perennial presidential also-rans like Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

And then there was the long-haired 38-year-old, Andrei Bogdanov, who is running on a platform that calls for Russia's rapid integration into the European Union. He is seeking a national referendum on the subject in 2009.

If you think that seems a bit optimistic in this nationalistic election season, there's more. At a press conference last week, Bogdanov said he was hoping to win as much as 25 percent of the vote.

"The way I look at the situation, I am the only democratic candidate," he said. "I hope that what happened in the State Duma elections, due to the divisions among democrats, will not happen in the presidential election."

So, he said, his camp is "appealing to those democrats who always vote for democratic candidates, but didn't vote in the Duma elections," adding, "I think everything will be fine for us."

So where did this virtual unknown come from? Most observers say Bogdanov's rise from obscurity to become one of four candidates seeking the highest office in the land has been more than a bit suspicious.

"This is a candidacy that is completely dependent on the Kremlin," says political analyst Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow branch of the Heritage Foundation. "This is to create the appearance that these elections are democratic. The fact that he was registered demonstrates that he will be an obedient candidate who is in the Kremlin's pocket."

Indeed, Bogdanov appears to have managed easily to gather the 2 million signatures necessary to run for president, even though his obscure Russian Democratic Party won fewer than 90,000 votes -- or 0.13 percent of the vote -- in parliamentary elections in December.

Russian media reports suggest that Bogdanov has a long record of supporting the Kremlin's ideology of "sovereign democracy," has never criticized Putin publicly, and was an official with the ruling Unified Russia party in 2002-03.

Moreover, the Democratic Party held its national congress in September at a resort outside Moscow owned by the presidential administration.

"Unfortunately, in Russia these things are done to create the appearance of democracy even though nobody takes them seriously," Volk says, explaining that Bogdanov's candidacy appeared primarily designed to fend off anticipated Western criticism that the March 2 election will have fallen short of democratic standards. "When there are complaints from the OSCE, or the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, [the Kremlin] can say: 'Look, we have Bogdanov of the Democratic Party, who represents the [liberal] right. We also have a representative of the Communists and of the nationalist right too.' It's an artificial argument."

Bogdanov became head of the Democratic Party in 2005 after a contentious leadership battle against Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister-turned-opposition figure. At the time, Kasyanov alleged that the Kremlin had orchestrated Bogdanov's challenge.

The Central Election Commission on January 27 rejected Kasyanov's presidential candidacy on the grounds that an unacceptably high percentage of signatures on his nomination petition had been falsified.

Chess champion and former presidential hopeful Garry Kasparov announced in December that he was withdrawing his candidacy but would "continue campaigning unofficially" after his umbrella opposition group, Other Russia, conceded that it failed to meet a technical deadline for registration. Kasparov blamed that failure on the Central Election Commission and "administrative pressure," making it impossible to comply with the deadline.

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