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Kasyanov Steps Up Kremlin Bid

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on Saturday launched a liberal movement called People's Democratic Union -- ratcheting up his long-shot bid to be elected Russia's next president in 2008.

"We are witnessing a clear trend of a rolling back of political freedom and the destruction of the foundations of a free-market economy," Kasyanov warned Saturday at an inaugural meeting of People's Democratic Union delegates from 31 regions across the country.

The meeting, held at Moscow's Izmailovo Hotel, included more than 100 delegates and scores of journalists and sundry guests. Prominent attendees included the Union of Right Forces' former chief, Boris Nemtsov, also a former deputy prime minister, and chess-giant-turned-liberal-activist Garry Kasparov.

Kasyanov further accused President Vladimir Putin's government of intimidating successful business owners, censoring the media, applying the law selectively and steering money away from the relatively impoverished provinces and toward Moscow.

Kasyanov is joined by many former Democratic Party members in his bid to turn the People's Democratic Union into a major political force. Former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada also sits on the board that runs the new group.

As of Saturday, the group was an officially recognized movement. Over the next 1 1/2 years, Kasyanov and his allies will seek to build an extensive infrastructure of supporters outside Moscow.

By late 2007, the group hopes to have achieved party status and be in a position to run candidates in the State Duma elections. And by the time of the presidential election in 2008, Kasyanov is expected to run for the top job.

Kasyanov's kick-off speech Saturday comes after failing to secure the leadership in December of the Democratic Party. That occurred after Kasyanov rivals blocked his entry into the building in Moscow where the party was holding a meeting. Party delegates subsequently elected Andrei Bogdanov, the chairman of the Democratic Party's central committee. Khakamada, a former presidential contender and liberal opposition leader who attended the meeting, said Bogdanov and his associates would be "toys of the Kremlin."

Kasyanov, by contrast, is a prominent liberal leader known for instituting the nation's flat tax and presiding over strong economic growth when he was prime minister, from 2000 through early 2004.

Khakamada said Russians had forgiven liberal reformers for the errors of the past. Now, she added, is the time for courage as democratic activists stand up against a government viewed as increasingly authoritarian.

Musa Sadayev, a leading Chechen liberal and a delegate to the People's Democratic Union congress, said the opposition should aim to secure support in the North Caucasus, which he called the Kremlin's weak spot.

As Yeltsin's prime minister, Putin launched Russia's second war of the 1990s in Chechnya, in 1999.

Today, Sadayev said, the government is blamed for the violence, poverty and corruption that affect the region. He added that the democrats' economic flops of the 1990s did not hurt people in the North Caucasus as much as elsewhere.

Kremlin supporters portrayed Kasyanov and his supporters as American stooges. Outside the hotel and in the hotel lobby, the youth groups Nashi and Rossiya Molodaya ridiculed the congress, with both featuring Uncle Sam look-alikes donning stars-and-stripes hats.

(The Moscow Times 10.iv.06)

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