- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

MOSCOW — Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia’s longest-serving post-Soviet prime minister and an economic reformer with strong credentials, has stepped up his campaign to lead Russia’s liberal forces and be elected the country’s next president in 2008. But with his personal popularity low and the Kremlin maintaining a tight grip on the press, analysts say he faces an uphill struggle.

Mr. Kasyanov, who was fired by President Vladimir Putin in 2004, opened his campaign for the presidency this month with the foundation of the Popular Democratic Union, a movement aimed at uniting reformist efforts to make gains in next year’s parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential vote.

A harsh critic of Mr. Putin, Mr. Kasyanov said the chief aim of his movement is to stop the authorities from committing “massive fraud” in the coming elections.

“We are witnessing a clear trend of rolling back political freedom and the destruction of the foundations of a free-market economy,” he said. “This road leads to a dead end.”

The most experienced politician in the opposition, Mr. Kasyanov is known for instituting free-market reforms, including Russia’s flat tax, and presiding over strong economic growth when he was prime minister, from 2000 to early 2004.

“He did a very good job as prime minister for four years,” said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics. “Kasyanov has very strong executive credentials and, most importantly for a Russian politician, he has extremely strong nerves. You can put him under any pressure and he won’t break.”

Mr. Kasyanov is so far the highest-profile politician to announce that he will run for the presidency. Mr. Putin is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, but analysts expect the Kremlin will anoint a successor to continue his policies.

Since coming to power in 1999, Mr. Putin has sidelined the opposition by stifling the independent press, eliminating direct elections for regional governors and dominating parliament through the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

The country’s main liberal opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, have lost all but a handful of seats in federal and local legislatures. Mr. Kasyanov said in a speech a week ago that uniting the reformist opposition is essential to challenging the Kremlin and that he hopes to bring the various groups together this summer.

He has already won the support of one of the country’s top reform politicians, former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada, who has joined the governing council of Mr. Kasyanov’s group.

But Mr. Kasyanov also must overcome his widespread unpopularity. Though he has vehemently denied rumors of corrupt dealings while in office, he has found it difficult to shake off the nickname “Misha 2 percent” — reflecting accusations that he received 2 percent kickbacks on state contracts while in office.

In a poll of 1,600 Russians last month, the Levada Center found that only 1 percent would have voted for Mr. Kasyanov. Nearly 70 percent said they would prefer to see Mr. Putin remain in power or would vote for a candidate he endorsed.

“His chances are very scarce,” said Vitaly Naumkin, the director of Moscow’s International Center for Strategic and Political Studies. “His image has been spoiled by accusations of corruption; the mood in Russia is not in favor of pro-Western candidates; and he is seen as arrogant, as someone who is very far from the concerns of the Russian population.”

Mr. Kasyanov claims the Kremlin has already begun a smear campaign against him. In February, a Moscow court stripped Mr. Kasyanov of his luxury dacha outside Moscow after a pro-Putin deputy in parliament accused him of illegitimately acquiring the house and property at a deeply discounted price.

A higher court later returned the property to Mr. Kasyanov, but not before Russian press gave widespread coverage to the scandal.

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