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As elections loom, Russian opposition gears up for fight

Russia holds regional polls on October 10 while campaigning has begun for the 2012 presidential poll. But it's not all business as usual. A new opposition group plans to take on the ruling duo of Putin and Medvedev.

A protester holding a portrait of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov takes part in an opposition rally in Moscow

As protests escalate in Russia, experts say the political atmosphere is changing

Election fever is sweeping Russia. On October 10, the country holds regional parliamentary elections in places such as Tuva, Belgorod, Novosibirsk and Chelyabinsk while regions such as Samara will elect a local mayor. In addition, local council elections will be held on the same day in several regions.

But campaign fever isn't just confined to select regions in Russia. Observers say the election campaign for presidential elections in March 2012 has long kicked off too.

The main players are Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev and both are increasingly presenting themselves as strong leaders in times of crisis.

Putin outshines Medvedev in media battle

Putin ratcheted up his media presence during the fight against forest fires in Russia this summer. Similarly, Medvedev made a public show of keeping a lid on prices in supermarkets in the light of rising food prices.

Putin and Medvedev

Putin, left, is much more media-savvy than his hand-picked successor Medvedev

But it's Putin who has the edge when it comes to being media-savvy, according to Russian political analyst Pavel Tolstych.

"Of course, Putin is very telegenic. He knows how to communicate with journalists, he can conduct debates well and can make jokes in his own style," Tolstych said. "Medvedev can't keep up with him when it comes to keeping the public in good spirits. He also doesn't have what it takes to be a Russian 'macho.' Putin's time has come and Medvedev now will take second place in the media campaign."

But experts believe the development isn't scripted. Putin and Medvedev are said to have made a deal that Putin would become Russia's next president in 2012 and many believe the two will stick to it. Tolstych also played down speculation of serious differences within the Kremlin or the government.

But not everybody shares that view. Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert, from the German Council for Foreign Affairs said the two leaders represented two different political outlooks: Putin stood for a conservative modernization of Russia while Medvedev for a liberal one.

The Russia expert is convinced that voters are slowly beginning to pick up on the differences and political nuances of the leadership duo. And that's already begun to affect the views and desires of the voters.

Slow but perceptible change

Rahr also pointed out that the results of regional elections in early 2010 show that the political atmosphere in Russia is changing.

Putin's party, United Russia, may have won the elections but the opposition also garnered enough votes to be taken seriously and become a real political force in the country, he said.

The opposition also plans to contest the upcoming regional elections in October. Russian authorities have already allowed their candidates to compete.

All in all the process was peaceful, according to Aleksandr Kynjev from the Russian non-governmental organization "Golos" which focuses on voters' rights. But he pointed out a few "scandalous" examples of opposition candidates barred from contesting.

"One candidate from Samara wasn't allowed because his ID card contained an entry saying his passport had expired. The authorities then declared the ID card to be invalid though they had made that entry themselves," Kynjev said.

He added that in other cases, candidates were barred from standing for election because they allegedly hadn't signed the applications themselves or had allegedly left the forms incomplete by failing to fill out certain fields.

Opposition joins forces to take on Kremlin

Russian opposition leaders

Opposition candidates have joined forces in Russia

But the bureaucratic hurdles and intimidation haven't stopped several opposition candidates from joining forces for an uphill political battle against the Kremlin for the presidential elections.

On September 16, a group of prominent opposition leaders formed a coalition called "Russia without Corruption and Lawlessness" to challenge Putin and Medvedev.

The coalition represents a further attempt alongside the "Other Russia" opposition party to unite the country's opposition forces against the two large pro-Kremlin parties United Russia and Fair Russia.

But experts warn that past attempts to unite an often fractured opposition against the Kremlin have often failed due to political jostling.

"Personal ambitions are always the problem. It's clear that everyone wants to be the boss. Each one of them has been in a top position in the past," Russian political affairs expert Leonid Radsichovskij said. "But now we perhaps have the last attempt to unite. The opposition is hoping that the situation improves and that the Russian public pays more attention to them."

The new coalition said the election campaign would offer the opposition to champion change.

Boris Nemtsov, who once served as deputy premier under President Boris Yeltsin, said the new coalition will continue holding street rallies that have mostly been banned or dispersed in recent years.

The "Russia without Corruption and Lawlessness" group has announced that it plans to contest the parliamentary elections next year as well as field a presidential candidate for the 2012 poll.

Author: Markian Ostaptschuk (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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