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Putin trumped charges on successors opponents { January 23 2008 }

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Forgery Probe Targets Critic of Putin
January 23, 2008

MOSCOW (AP) Prosecutors announced a forgery investigation Tuesday against the campaign of the only liberal Kremlin critic still in Russia's presidential race, a contest already expected to be won easily by Vladimir Putin's hand-picked candidate to succeed him.

Liberal opposition groups are small and weak, and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov has been given no chance in the election, even if the probe doesn't push him out of the race.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general's office, Tatiana Chernyshova, said on state television that the investigation involved possible forged signatures on nominating petitions for Kasyanov.

Chernyshova said suspected false signatures were found in the Yaroslavl and Mari-El regions. The head of Kasyanov's campaign in Mari-El, Rustam Abdullin, was detained earlier this month.

If more than 5 percent of signatures submitted by a campaign are forged, a candidate cannot be registered to run, Central Elections Commission member Yelena Dubrovina said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Kasyanov was Putin's first prime minister, but was dismissed in 2004 and later became a vocal critic of the president. He has accused Putin of damaging Russia's democracy and running roughshod over constitutional rights.

He had called for a boycott of the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections, arguing the Kremlin put up insurmountable barriers for its opponents.

Even if Kasyanov is permitted to run, he doesn't have a wide following and is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the politician backed by the hugely popular Putin, Dmitry Medvedev.

Some opposition figures have been unable to get on the next ballot, the March 2 presidential contest to choose a successor for Putin, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

Russia's most visible liberal opposition figure, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, is one of those who failed to get on the ballot. He charges that his supporters were not allowed to rent halls for nomination gatherings a requirement for candidates who are not members of registered parties.

Kasyanov said the investigation was making his campaign the victim of "an orgy of lawlessness" by authorities. He claimed his campaign workers had been intimidated into signing false confessions that petition signatures were faked.

"The government is afraid of direct political confrontation," Kasyanov told reporters, asserting that the decision on whether he would be on the ballot would depend on the Kremlin.

"It's not up to the Central Election Commission, it's up to Vladimir Putin," he said.

In addition to Medvedev, two other candidates have been registered, but neither presents serious competition: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz contributed to this report.

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