Liberals say Kremlin leads assault on disloyal party

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MOSCOW, Nov 13 (Reuters) One of Russia's leading liberals said today the Kremlin was behind an official smear campaign against his party because it had dared to oppose it ahead of the parliamentary election.

Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), said police had impounded 15 million of the party's newspapers in 24 regions and that the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement staged ''ruffianly provocations'' against its activists.

''This is a campaign orchestrated by the Kremlin, which is absolutely unlawful,'' Nemtsov told Reuters by telephone.

''A mud-slinging campaign against SPS. Why? Because we are the only real opposition force. Period,'' he said. ''It's indeed an open standoff between (President Vladimir) Putin and SPS.'' Opinion polls and analysts alike concur that the weak and disparate liberal forces have very little chance of passing the 7-per cent threshold needed to win seats in the next lower house of parliament (Duma) in the December 2 election.

The pro-Kremlin United Russia party, personally patronised by Putin, is likely to win the polls to further consolidate its dominance in the compliant legislature.

United Russia's logo of a polar bear heavily overshadows Russia's political life, with the bulk of regional heads and mayors being party members and huge street posters calling to vote for ''Putin's plan''.

''We are the only ones saying, 'We are against Putin's plan because this is a plan of installing the dictatorship of corrupt bureaucracy','' Nemtsov said.

Kremlin officials say the elections will be free and fair and dismiss as speculation stories that it is influencing the electoral system.

Putin, on a visit to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, said earlier today he expected the parliamentary election on December 2 to give him a power base to influence Russian politics after he steps down as president next year.

Putin, fiercely popular nationwide amid an oil-fuelled economic boom which generates higher incomes, is heading the United Russia list of candidates.

A former KGB agent, Putin has weathered criticism at home and abroad of backtracking on democratic reforms and referred to several opposition protests in major Russian cities as the ones staged by ''marginals''.

Nemtsov said Russia was ''fast turning into another Belarus''.

Under President Alexander Lukashenko, the Russian neighbour has not held an election judged free or fair, and his rule has been marked by crackdowns on press freedoms and dissent. Western diplomats call Lukashenko Europe's last dictator.

''The legitimacy of this (Duma) election campaign is fast matching that of Belarussian votes,'' Nemtsov said. ''Not a single honest man will have the courage to say, 'That was a fair one'.'' Nemtsov said SPS had complained to the General-Prosecutor's office about the official pressure on SPS, although he said he did not believe prosecutors would take a just decision.

Prosecutors could not immediately confirm they had received the complaint.

Reuters YA VP0025

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