Wednesday, January 21, 2004

A long-shot reform candidate in Russia’s March presidential election said yesterday the West must stop “collaborating” with what he described as incumbent Vladimir Putin’s agenda to undermine democracy.

“I can only say that the United States and the West in general should just stop providing support for this man who is on his way to becoming a dictator,” said Ivan Rybkin, speaker of the State Duma in the 1990s.

“Otherwise,” he said through an interpreter, “you will be creating a big headache for everybody — for Russians but also for the international community.”

Mr. Rybkin, one of Russia’s embattled band of pro-Western democrats decimated in the December parliamentary elections, was in Washington this week for meetings with Bush administration officials, lawmakers and scholars about the pending presidential vote.

Despite Mr. Putin’s firm control of the Kremlin, the Duma and the country’s six national television outlets, Mr. Rybkin said yesterday he had been able to obtain the 2 million signatures needed to get his name of the March 14 ballot.

Polls suggest Mr. Putin will cruise to a second four-year term in the vote against Mr. Rybkin and eight other challengers.

Mr. Rybkin is seen in Russian political circles as a close ally of Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire “oligarch” now living in exile in London after tangling with Mr. Putin. The candidate said he knows and has worked with Mr. Berezovsky, but said his election platform is based on a far wider critique of Mr. Putin.

He accused the Russian president of stocking top government posts with old colleagues from the Russian spy services and military; using state resources to seize control of critical media outlets and silence political opponents; centralizing power in the Kremlin while starving regional governments of revenue; conducting an aggressive foreign policy toward neighboring states of the old Soviet Union; and using the U.S.-led global war on terrorism as an excuse to brutally suppress a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.

The Bush administration has offered muted criticism of Russia’s record on press freedoms and Chechnya, but Mr. Putin has forged a strong personal bond with President Bush.

Although Russia’s two leading pro-Western social democratic parties failed to win any seats in the most recent Duma elections, Mr. Rybkin insisted that reports of the death of reform forces in Russia “are greatly exaggerated.” He cited as proof his ability to collect the 2 million signatures in the face of a hostile Kremlin.

Asked whether he feared for his safety in running against the powerful Mr. Putin, Mr. Rybkin said he made a public pledge in 2002 to run for president if no other leading reformer entered the race.

“I am a Russian and I have to live in my own country,” he said. “Yes, people are fearful in the current environment, but I personally made a commitment and I am determined to be consistent.”

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