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Russia: Small Activist Groups Seek Election Boycott

With polls showing the incumbent can count on some 50 percent of votes in this month's Russian presidential election, acting President Vladimir Putin has little to fear from other candidates. Putin's only real enemy would be a low turnout that would invalidate the election results. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that a few tiny anti-Putin political movements are calling on voters to boycott the election or vote against all candidates.

Moscow, 14 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Conventional wisdom in Russia says the only way to keep acting President Vladimir Putin from being elected on March 26 is to make the election invalid. That is the message promoted by several anti-Putin movements, which argue that since Putin seems invincible, opponents' civic duty is to either refuse to vote or to vote against all the candidates.

If the "none of the above" option (in Russian: "protiv vsekh") gets more votes than any candidate, or if the turnout is less than 50 percent, the election will be invalid and a new vote will be held in June.

Small political movements like Union 2000 (Soyuz 2000), led by leftist sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky or Osvod, led by a young journalist, Ivan Zassursky, are both in favor of a total boycott.

At a meeting last Saturday organized under the statue of Karl Marx in central Moscow, Union 2000 and Osvod supporters carried signs saying, "Don't vote or you'll be ashamed."

Kagarlitsky calls the elections a farce whose only aim is to legitimize a developing dictatorship. And Zassursky told RFE/RL that he believes keeping the turnout low is the only way Russian citizens can affect the election.

"We want to say that among those 40 million who don't vote there are people that don't vote not because they don't care, but because they are disgusted by it all. So in these elections, a boycott is actually the expression of a civic position."

Usually citizens should exercise their right to vote, Zassursky says. But he argues that these circumstances call for desperate measures.

"We are acting in the interests of the political system. It seems to me that if elections didn't take place and if it were possible to spoil them, that would make it possible to lead an election campaign as scheduled. All the questions that were silenced now [would be asked], including about the war [in Chechnya] that hasn't been shown because the state holds a very firm control over the stations."

Another group, which calls itself the Committee of Cheated Voters, calls for voters to choose the "none of the above" option.

Still another movement is simply called Nyet. It is organized in cooperation with Sergei Grigoriant's Glasnost Foundation and is supported by around 100 human rights activists.

Nyet calls for people to vote freely in the first round. Nyet's leader, Vladimir Pribylovsly, says he will vote for reformist Grigory Yavlinsky. But in the second round, Nyet calls for a vote of "none of the above." This position echoes the behavior of Yavlinsky supporters in 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was in a runoff against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Pribylovsky told RFE/RL that if elections were put off until June, there would be time for voters to become disillusioned with Putin, and true competition would be possible.

"In four months, new elections. In that time Putin's rating will deflate. It is then most likely, not that the democratic forces [unite], but that the regime will discredit itself -- over the war, the economy, and just by answering the question, who is Putin."

All of these anti-Putin movements, however, are very marginal. Saturday's meeting was attended exclusively by its organizers --Kagarlitsky's leftist movement, some ecologists, a few anarchists. All in all, only a few dozen supporters showed up.

Nonetheless, the option of voting "none of the above" has received considerable media attention. This may be partly because there is little else for the media to focus on in a campaign in which the front-runner is perceived to have such a considerable lead.

In any case, the handful of colorful dissidents calling for a boycott has attracted enough attention to spur a reaction from the Central Electoral Commission. Commission head Aleksander Veshnyakov announced on Friday that encouraging voters to vote "against all" or to abstain is a violation of the electoral law.

Commission spokesman Yevgeny Silin told RFE/RL that such calls are illegal because the presidential election law (article 8.2) specifically says that only candidates are allowed to campaign.

"Like Aleksander Albertovich Veshnyakov said on Friday, according to the law, only registered candidates can campaign. This kind of agitation is not allowed by the law because only registered candidates are allowed to agitate."

Silin dismissed questions about whether such an interpretation of the law violates the right to freedom of speech, saying "the law is the law."

The Electoral Commission's warning may have already had an effect. The National Press Institute cancelled a Union 2000 press conference scheduled for today (Monday) because the institute said it is unsure whether the group is allowed to campaign or not.