Last of the liberals to leave Russian parliament

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MOSCOW, Nov 14 (Reuters) After 14 years in the Russian parliament, Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of its last liberal voices, will soon clear his desk because new rules sponsored by the Kremlin prevent him from running for re-election next month.

For years now, liberal opponents of President Vladimir Putin like Ryzhkov have been an endangered species in the State Duma. After the December 2 vote, they face extinction.

''These changes (to election rules) are absolutely authoritarian in style and the main task is to stop the opposition running in elections and instead create a loyal Duma for the Kremlin,'' said Ryzhkov.

''I was never rich. I'm not rich today. I didn't make my personal capital from public service like some of my colleagues,'' Ryzhkov said in a typical angry outburst at political standards in his country.

''Almost all parties running today are Kremlin friends. It's an imitation of democracy. There's no chance for a real opposition to enter the parliament. The main media, national TV channels are under full Kremlin control,'' he said.

The 41-year-old Ryzhkov supports a greater role in the economy for private capital and attracting foreign investment in the oil and gas sectors.

He has set himself at odds with the Kremlin by favouring an end to army conscription, reducing the Kremlin's power and seeking a political solution to Chechnya's separatist conflict.

Ryzhkov was elected for the Siberian city of Barnaul under the single-seat element of Russia's previous system. It allowed voters in 225 constituencies to elect lawmakers directly, with the remaining 225 drawn from party lists.

With support for liberal opposition parties dwindling since Putin took power in 2000, running as an independent was the only way for people like Ryzhkov to get into parliament.

Now, only lists apply. Two liberal opposition parties are running in the vote, but polls suggest they will not get over the seven percent threshold to qualify for votes.

The end of independent deputies like Ryzhkov is part of a wider shake-up to the electoral system.

New anti-extremism laws, intended to curb radical nationalism, stirred fears amongst opponents that they would be used to gag parties critical of the Kremlin.

The threshold for seats in the Duma has also been raised from five percent to seven percent, making it harder for the smaller parties to get in.

The rules on registering parties have been toughened too, disqualifying many groups before the election started. These include the Other Russia opposition coalition led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Putin has argued that the package of measures were introduced to prevent further fragmentation of Russia's political system and would instead nurture larger parties.

The opposition, not the pro-Kremlin United Russia would boost its parliamentary presence through this ''revolutionary change'', Putin said in a speech this year.

LIBERALS 'OUT OF STEP' Kremlin supporters say the liberal opposition has only itself to blame for its plight. Opinion polls say their policies are out of step with voters' views, and the party leaders have failed to merge to create a bigger force.

Independent pollster Levada estimates support for the United Russia party -- whose election ticket is led by Putin -- at 67 per cent. Of the others, only the Communist Party is assured of crossing the seven-percent threshold.

Ryzhkov says natural support for liberal parties is quite high, but that it is being held in check.

''Society is passive because of the good economic shape and high oil prices, but I hope that in future people will change,'' he said.

Like Ryzhkov, Andrei Klimov was elected to the Duma as an independent. He will almost certainly keep his seat though, because he has joined the United Russia's list.

He vigorously defended the new election rules.

''In the United States, you have hundreds of parties, but only two in their parliament or the UK, with a two-and-a-half party system. We have 11 parties, what should we do, ask people not to vote for United Russia?'' Klimov said.

''We don't want someone in London or Washington to say what is good for Russia or not,'' he said from his office in the Duma.

REUTERS SKB RAI0912

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