Veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who's been a presidential candidate three times before, will not be allowed to run against Vladimir Putin in the upcoming March 4 presidential polls, Russia's official electoral commission announced today.
The decision will not only prevent Mr. Yavlinsky from campaigning or addressing the electorate over the next five weeks, but also denies his party, Yabloko – Russia's oldest grassroots liberal party – from fielding election observers to monitor the voting.
Kremlin critics are in an uproar over the ruling, saying it proves that the Putin system of "managed democracy," which weeds and landscapes Russia's political garden to ensure no viable independent challengers to the Kremlin's chosen candidates can emerge, is still alive and well.
"The Putin strategy is to win the election decisively in the first round, and the presence of Yavlinsky on the ballot would have complicated things," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant.
"In the past, Yavlinsky could be relied on to get a limited and predictable portion of the vote from urban, middle class intellectuals, and that was OK with the Kremlin," he says. "But since the mass demonstrations in December, everything's changed. Unlike others on the ballot, Yavlinsky could be an acceptable protest candidate for millions of people who are tired of Putin. He could catch a protest wave that would possibly prevent Putin from winning a first round knockout. So, they decided he had to be excluded."
Election official Nikolai Konkin, who announced the ruling today, insisted that it was purely a matter of technical propriety. Yavlinsky's supporters collected well over the two million signatures needed on nomination petitions in the 25 days allotted, but upon examination, officials found about a quarter of them to be invalid, Mr. Konkin said.
Yabloko's press spokesperson, Igor Yakovlev, says the party collected the necessary number of signatures despite the short time frame and harassment from local authorities. He says that disqualification of signatures is one of the standard methods from the "managed democracy" toolbox for keeping genuine challengers off the ballot.
"The decision not to register Yavlinsky is purely political, and we believe it was taken by Putin himself," says Mr. Yakovlev. "That's the way the system works. But if Yavlinsky is off the ballot, it means these presidential election lose whatever was left of their legitimacy."
Many critics believe the decision to block Yavlinsky was made to favor Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, who announced his candidacy last month and easily sailed through the registration process this week.
Mr. Prokhorov is youthful and energetic and talks a liberal line that might well appeal to Russia's disgruntled urban middle class. But he is also one of Russia's widely-despised "oligarchs," who earned his fortune in the murky 1990s privatizations of Soviet state assets, and a jet-setting playboy who, critics insist, stands zero chance of appealing to restive voters in Russia's far-flung conservative and working-class hinterland.
Prokhorov has denounced the decision to bar Yavlinsky from running.
"I have always stood for fair competition in politics," Prokhorov wrote on his LiveJournal blog about the Yavlinsky ruling. "This is what our citizens, who've been going to rallies, are demanding. A victory in the presidential elections should be won only by fair means."
With the ballot now finalized, the permitted candidates, besides Prokhorov, include Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, whose ability to attract protest votes beyond his traditional supporters is sharply limited by the negative attitudes of many Russians toward the party that led the Soviet Union. Another is ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has run in every Russian presidential election since 1990. His Liberal Democratic Party, whose name is widely seen as a misleading misnomer, is a fixture in the parliament and has never voted against any Kremlin-approved policy.
Yet another contender is former speaker of the upper house of parliament Sergei Mironov, a former Putin crony who polled less than 1 percent when he ran against him in 2004. Mironov's most notable quote in that campaign was, "We all want Vladimir Putin to be the next president."
According to a public opinion poll released Friday by the state-run Public Opinion Research Center, Putin remains the most popular candidate, with 49 percent of respondents supporting him. Mr. Zyuganov is far behind with 11 percent, Mr. Zhirinovsky with 9 percent, and Mr. Mironov with 6 percent. Prokhorov received 4 percent of the votes, but pollsters point out that his support has doubled in the past week, indicating strong momentum.
"Speaking personally, I would have gladly voted for Yavlinsky, but I will never support Prokhorov because I think he's as bad as Putin, even if he isn't an outright Kremlin project," says Mr. Strokan, the columnist.
"I'm surely not the only one who thinks that way. I know an awful lot of people who would like to see an acceptable protest candidate on the ballot, an anti-Putin option that they could vote for with clear consciences," he adds. "Now there isn't one."