Russia on Friday barred the sole liberal challenger to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the March 4 presidential election in a move the opposition and Washington said undermined the polls’ legitimacy.
The Russian Central Election Commission said it could not accept about a quarter of the registration signatures gathered by Yabloko (Apple) party founder Grigory Yavlinsky because they were either photocopies of originals or fakes.
“I am sad to announce that we will not able to register Yavlinsky as a candidate,” election commission member Sergei Danilenko told a special hearing.
Russia’s presidential election rules have grown progressively stricter since 1996 and now require all independent candidates to collect 2 million signatures to win registration.
The restriction has been heavily criticized by the candidates as well as the growing protest movement against Putin, who will be standing for a third term as president in the polls after his four-year stint as prime minister.
The Party of People’s Freedom established by a group of former liberal Cabinet members called on Putin to delay the election because of the decision, while Yavlinsky vowed to challenge the move in court.
“We are preparing an appeal,” the 59-year-old economist told reporters. “I am certain that Putin is the person who issued the instruction” for the election authorities to act.
“Open political competition requires that electoral laws be applied fairly to all parties and candidates,” US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “Russians, like Americans and people everywhere, seek free, fair, transparent elections and a genuine choice when they go to the ballot box.”
The decision could add still more momentum to a spreading opposition movement that plans to stage the third in a series of rallies in Moscow and other big cities against Putin on Feb. 4.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov moved quickly to stamp out charges from Yabloko that the decision laid waste to Kremlin claims that it supports a fair vote.
“If one of the candidates fails to collect the required number of signatures, this does not mean you can make claims about the vote’s illegitimacy,” Peskov told the RIA Novosti state news agency.
Putin doubled the number of signatures required for candidates’ registration in 2004, a year when he stepped up his campaign to centralize power by also announcing an end to direct elections for regional governors.
The presidential election rules were tightened again in 2007 when Putin was about to hand power to his hand-picked successor Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, giving candidates just a month to rally their support instead of the previous three months.
Facing Russia’s largest protests since the turbulent 1990s, Medvedev last month proposed reducing the required number of signatures — a move the opposition said came too late.
The vote is now set to feature Putin and three leaders of nominally opposition parties who all lost presidential elections before, as well as the billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov.
A precious-metals magnate who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team in the NBA, Prokhorov also criticized officials for threatening Yavlinsky with expulsion this week, calling current election rules unfair.
Yavlinsky, who was shown winning less than 3 percent in most polls, founded Yabloko in 1993 as Russia struggled with a post-Soviet economic crisis that left many impoverished and looking for social protection.
He always promoted more -socially-oriented policies and twice ran for president, failing to break the 10 percent barrier in 1996 and 2000.