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Russia: Opposition Parties Mulling United Boycott Of Presidential Elections

Russia's liberal, pro-democracy Yabloko party says it will not field a candidate in the country's presidential elections in March. The party says fair political competition and free elections are impossible in Russia under existing conditions. The country's other major democratic party -- the Union of Rightist Forces -- says it will also likely stay out of the race, and the Communists are hinting at a similar move.

Prague, 22 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A boycott of Russia's presidential elections in March by opposition parties could put President Vladimir Putin in an awkward position.

Yesterday, the leader of Russia's liberal Yabloko party, Grigorii Yavlinskii, announced that the party will not field a candidate in the March vote.

Yabloko's likely partner in any opposition coalition, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), said in a statement yesterday that it also might decline to nominate a candidate. SPS has not made a final decision yet.

In parliamentary elections earlier this month, both Yabloko and SPS failed to clear the 5 percent threshold needed to win any party-list seats in the next State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party won more than 37 percent of the vote.

Yavlinskii, a two-time presidential candidate, said fair elections are impossible in Russia under existing conditions. He said Russia has no independent national media outlets and no independent legal system. SPS, led by Anatolii Chubais, the architect of Russian privatization, and Boris Nemtsov, a former prime minister, support these charges as well.

Yavlinskii says the parliamentary elections created a new political situation in the country. "It has become clear that the creation of a [virtual] one-party Duma in Russia is a very disturbing factor and can have grave consequences for the country," he said.

Yavlinskii says democrats will survive in Russia only if they manage to create a unified opposition. A coalition between Yabloko and SPS would increase the chances of a good showing for both parties in the March elections. But Yabloko and SPS have so far failed to agree on a presidential candidate or program.

However, Nemtsov said last week that recent talks between SPS and Yabloko had ended on a more "meaningful" note than in the past.

Analyst Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center is pessimistic about any positive outcome, however. "Speaking about unification, as we have seen during several years and especially before the parliamentary elections on 7 December, the attempts to unite produce no results," she told RFE/RL.

Lipman says there are indications of positive trends in the Russian democratic camp, but it may be a case of too little, too late. "The fact that Yavlinskii said he would not support Putin but would not put himself forward as a candidate himself and would not invite his supporters to vote for Putin indicates in some sense that a unified democratic position is appearing," she said. "However, it still doesn't look like the unified position of two parties."

Lipman says democratic parties in Russia are no longer hiding their negative attitudes toward Putin. "Until recently," she said, "everything was criticized in Russia, except Putin."

Even the Communists are not sure they will participate in the elections. Reports say that Gennadii Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader and Putin's main rival in the 2000 elections, is having second thoughts about the election and is consulting with the democratic parties about boycotting the vote, as well.

Putin is immensely popular in Russia and appears certain to be re-elected for a second term. But Lipman says a boycott of the elections by leading opposition parties could cast a shadow on his victory. Lipman says Putin wants a credible opponent and a big turnout to achieve legitimacy.