Putin as prime minister bad for rights - activists

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BRUSSELS, Oct 3 (Reuters) Human rights are likely to suffer if Russian President Vladimir Putin cements his grip on power by becoming prime minister after December parliamentary polls, Russian activists said today.

Should Putin take the position, it would represent a shift back to a single-party system of the Soviet era, the activists told a Brussels news conference commemorating the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 7 last year.

''With Putin's announcement...the presidential elections lost whatever meaning they could have possibly had,'' said Tanya Lokshina of the Russian rights group DEMOS, referring to next year's presidential race.

''The Russian Federation will not vote for a president, it will vote for an assistant to Mr Putin, who will remain the boss,'' she said.

''The negative tendencies that we have witnessed over the years of Putin's rule are only going to be reinforced.'' Putin told his United Russia Party's congress on Monday he would head its list in the parliamentary elections and could be a future prime minister, the clearest signal yet he would hold on to power after stepping down as president next year.

Under the constitution, Putin must step down in 2008 after two four-year terms in office. He has refused to rule out returning in 2012, which the constitution would allow.

Oleg Orlov of the rights group MEMORIAL said if Putin were to become prime minister it would mark an effective shift back towards the one-party system of the Soviet era.

''Formally speaking we will certainly have several parties in the parliament, but in fact we now have a centre of power within one single party -- that is the United Russia,'' he said.

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK? ''Now it appears that we are turning back to something that is strikingly reminiscent of our Communist Soviet past.'' Lokshina said none of the three men seen as possible candidates for the presidency -- Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov and current Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov -- could be said to be sympathetic towards human rights.

Speaking at the same briefing, Western rights groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) urged the European Union be more consistent and transparent in promoting rights in Russia.

A spokeswoman for EU's executive Commission declined to comment on the possibility of Putin being a prime ministerial candidate, but said the EU had stressed to the Russians the hope that the polls would be held in an atmosphere that would allow full participation by all political parties.

The EU sides had also expressed hope that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe would be allowed to monitor the vote, Christiana Hohmann said.

REUTERS SKB RAI1843

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