- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - A Russian court ruled on Monday that tycoon Alexander Lebedev’s registration as a mayoral candidate in the Olympic city of Sochi is invalid, the billionaire said, and he vowed to appeal a decision that Kremlin critics called part of a dirty campaign to ensure victory for the government favorite.

The Black Sea resort is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the April 26 vote is seen as a new test of Russian democracy after years of increasing Kremlin control over politics.

But with Russia’s prestige and their own legacies on the line as the country struggles to prepare for the Olympics amid economic crisis, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev want to leave little to chance in the high-profile vote.

Lebedev’s spokesman, Artyom Artyomov, told The Associated Press the Sochi court ruled that Lebedev had failed to submit a financial document required for registration _ a finding he said was “simply not true.” Court officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the ruling, which was also reported by state-run news agency RIA-Novosti and ITAR-Tass.

On his online blog, Lebedev suggested that the ruling was politically motivated.

“It’s a common trick to take out a strong candidate,” he wrote.

Lebedev is a banker, investor and former lawmaker whose holdings include about one-third of Russian flag-carrier Aeroflot as well as a stake in the critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta. He frequently speaks out against government policies. He has said he would team up with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to form a new political party and seek to reverse Russia’s steps back from democracy.

Lebedev vowed to appeal the court ruling and continue campaigning, but it was not clear whether he could remain on the ballot pending such an appeal.

With the current Olympics budget at about $13 billion and the mayor expected to play a key role in determining where the funds should go, the election has attracted close attention nationwide.

In a country where the results of major elections in recent years have been all but foregone conclusions, the initial field of 26 potential candidates promised an unusually interesting race. It included a porn star, a former Bolshoi Theater ballerina and the suspect named by Britain in the 2006 radiation poisoning death of Kremlin foe Alexander Litvinenko.

With some dropping out and others denied registration, the list was winnowed down to nine registered candidates early this month, including Lebedev and Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who has become a fierce critic of Putin. Andrei Bogdanov, who challenged Medvedev in last year’s presidential vote but is seen as a Kremlin ally, withdrew his candidacy Monday.

Nemtsov said the court decision was part of a government push to ensure victory for Anatoly Pakhomov, who is acting mayor and a member of Putin’s dominant United Russia party. “They have been given the task of pushing this candidate through at any price,” he said.

Nemtsov spoke at a news conference he held to criticize Russia’s plans for the Olympics _ which he said will be exceedingly costly, damage the environment and leave Sochi teeming with useless facilities. He also publicized a proposal to hold many of the events in Moscow instead. Any major change in plans for the Olympics would be humiliating for Putin, who personally backed Sochi’s bid as president and has guided preparations.

Nemtsov said provincial and local Sochi authorities have kept him and other candidates off the airwaves, which are dominated by Pakhomov, and that he has been attacked, prevented from meeting voters, and had campaign pamphlets confiscated.

“The Sochi elections are 100 percent lawlessness and 100 percent fraud,” he said.

___

Associated Press Writer David Nowak contributed to this report.

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