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Why opposition is urging voters to sabotage ballots in Russia election

Voters should spoil their ballots in Russia's elections Sunday to protest a stage-managed process, says a leader whose party has been banned. One poll finds that 80 percent of Russians say voting has no impact.

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PARNAS, which was created last year through an amalgamation of four smaller liberal groups, appears to have met all the stringent Russian legal requirements for registration, and thus inclusion on the ballot. But last June, Russia's Justice Ministry abruptly cancelled the party's registration, citing seemingly minor technicalities, such as alleged contradictions between some articles in the party's founding charter and the claim that about 70 of the party's 46,000 members nationwide were either dead or underaged persons.

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Party leaders insist they were excluded because they represent a genuine political alternative to the officially sanctioned field of choices, which includes two small liberal parties. Kasyanov says PARNAS differs mainly in its fierce refusal to submit to Kremlin control, and the fact that it includes several experienced politicians – people with hands-on experience in government – with strong business connections that might attract substantial resources and wide support if it were allowed to freely run.

Independent experts say that PARNAS is probably unelectable, in part because all pro-Western liberals are deeply unpopular in Russia, and people like Kasyanov and Nemtsov are tainted as 1990s holdovers who got their start in the corrupt and inept administration of former President Boris Yeltsin. Some argue that PARNAS's exclusion from public politics reveals not so much fear that it might actually win an election as the irrational bureaucratic urge for total control that underlies the Putin system.

"It seems unreasonable, even stupid, for the authorities to prohibit PARNAS in the hamhanded way that they have. But this is a very telling fact about the system that Putin has built," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "The bureaucracy running the country is completely closed-minded, vindictive and lacking in imagination. If people are not obedient, and fail to make the appropriate displays of submission, they will be banned. Such a system has no flexibility, and seems to be doomed."

Initiative unlikely to be heeded by Russians

PARNAS's call for Russians to spoil their ballots as a mark of protest is unlikely to resonate with many voters, in part because of Russia's complicated electoral system, in which spoiled ballots and votes cast for parties that fail to hurdle the 7 percent barrier get divided up among the winners.

Kasyanov argues that it doesn't matter, because the election results are predetermined in any case. But some say that a reduced vote for the ruling United Russia party, plus higher tallies for the opposition Communists or the liberal Yabloko would send a more nuanced and effective message of protest to the Kremlin.

"This is not the Soviet system, there is limited choice available," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Of course United Russia is the party of power, and no opposition party will be allowed to win and come to power. But there is a window, within which differences can be expressed, and it should be utilized."

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