Putin censors campaign website as opposition critics debate future

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has launched a website dedicated to his run in the forthcoming presidential elections on 4 March. Minutes after the site went live on 12 January, comments in the site’s “suggestions” section called on him not to run in the presidential campaign. 98 per cent of visitors voted in favour of the comments, but the suggestions soon disappeared from the website. Bloggers quickly published screenshots, expressing concerns over censorship and noted that the website’s moderators left only comments wishing Putin success, and best wishes.

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied the censorship allegation. “The website froze for a few hours due to the huge amount of visitors,” he told RIA Novosti news agency. Eventually, after numerous blog posts and news items, the comments calling for Putin not to run were restored.

Putin did not comment on the issue and is unlikely to do so in the near future, as he has announced he won’t be taking part in pre-election debates.

Meanwhile his potential opponents in the presidential campaign are facing hard times.

The leader of The Other Russia opposition movement Eduard Limonov has filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights claiming Russia’s Central Election Committee has  refused to register him as a candidate. He says the police stopped his supporters from entering the building where its meeting was to be held. Under Russian electoral law, a person who wants to run in a presidential campaign has to hold meeting with at least 500 people who sign a paper in support of the candidate, which is then passed to the Central Election Committee. Liminov’s group of initiators eventually had to hold a meeting in a bus, and the Committee refused to recognise its results.

The leaders of two political parties that did not enter the State Duma as they din’t get over the threshold of seven per cent required by the law — economist Grigory Yavlinsky of “Yabloko” and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov of “Pravoe Delo” — had to collect the two million signatures the law demands of them to be registered. Prokhorov claims  his team has accomplished the task, though a number of experts remain skeptical about the accuracy of their work. Yavlinsky is still collecting the signatures, his team has complained about the artificial obstacles Russian electoral election law creates. For example, the number of signatories from each Russian region is limited to 50,000 people. In Moscow and St Petersburg it is relatively easy to find supporters, but regional work is harder.

Candidates are given 25 days  to accurately collect two million signatures. They will have to hand them in to the Central Election Committee on 18 January.

Meanwhile, Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party  have been asked to  become “transitional presidents” by many participants of the December rallies. The Left Front opposition movement sent a proposal to them saying should they win the elections they should carry out a comprehensive election law reform, hold new parliamentary elections in just one year and then step down. Mironov has accepted the proposal, while Zyuganov said he was ready to implement the election reform and re-run the parliamentary elections but did not like the idea of stepping down.

A similar proposal was made to all candidates by notable Russian political scientist Andrey Piontkovsky. In an article he suggested that  candidates who oppose Putin should “sign a contract with voters” promising to become a transitional president. This would involve carrying out radical reforms of election legislation, police and judiciary system; limiting the president’s power through passing amendments to the constitution; holding new parliamentary elections; and then within one to one-and-a-half years stepping down to participate in early presidential elections, which would be held according to new democratic laws. The candidates are yet to respond to him.

“The core goal for opposition is not to let Putin run the country again”, says Piontkovsky, who views transitional presidency as the way to achieve that. The “contract” between presidential candidates and civil society is to be “signed” on 4 February, on a third protest action for fair elections, which is expected to be the biggest yet.