Soviet exile returns to launch presidential bid

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MOSCOW, Oct 16 (Reuters) A dissident spirited out of Russia in a Cold War prisoner exchange returned home today to launch a presidential bid -- not to win but to highlight what he called a return to Soviet-style repression.

Vladimir Bukovsky spent years in prisons and psychiatric hospitals as punishment for his anti-Soviet campaigning before he was flown to Switzerland in 1976 and swapped for Luis Corvalan, a Communist politician who had been in jail in Chile.

Now a pensioner living in Britain's university town of Cambridge, he returned to Russia after a group of intellectuals opposed to President Vladimir Putin suggested to Bukovsky he run in next year's presidential election.

''I agreed,'' he said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station today, hours after landing in the Russian capital on his first visit back for 15 years.

''I am going to talk about how those (Soviet) times that we thought would never come back are now returning.'' Putin is hugely popular in Russia and credited with restoring stability and national pride, but his critics say he has crushed democratic freedoms. He is to step down next year and one of his team is likely to be elected as his replacement.

Bukovsky, 64, is a rank outsider for the presidency. Opinion polls show most voters will back whichever candidate Putin endorses as his successor.

Also, Bukovsky's bid could fall foul of a rule that requires candidates to have lived in Russia for not less than 10 years.

Some lawyers say this means the 10 years immediately before the election.

BOOKSHOP One of his first engagements back in Moscow was at one of the city's biggest bookstores, where he was signing copies of his autobiographical novel, ''To Build a Castle''.

About 60 people gathered to buy his book and hear his critique of Russia under Putin, a former KGB spy.

''Our secret services have grown too strong,'' Bukovsky told his audience. ''They are in all branches of government, all aspects of social life, in cultural life. That simply becomes dangerous.'' ''I don't believe that the current situation can evolve into something approaching normal civil society.'' ''If we already have rigged elections, if we already have people being arrested ... then that can't mean anything good for us in store,'' he said. ''At a minimum, it just means things are going to get worse.'' He said he believed Russian voters could quickly turn against the Kremlin, and he drew a parallel with street protests that led to peaceful revolutions in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.

''How much longer can this regime last? As soon as the price of oil and gas falls, everything will dissolve with frightening speed,'' he said.

''Things happen fast. Although political will is quite passive, and people don't really pay attention to these things, it could all change overnight.'' REUTERS CS BST0218

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