REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Russia's Central Election Commission on Wednesday invalidated a substantial number of the 2 million petition signatures presented by presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, virtually ensuring that the founder of the liberal Yabloko party will be barred from participating in the March presidential election.
But Mikhail Prokhorov, a businessman and owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets, was approved, joining four other candidates. They are Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Sergei Mironov, who represents the Just Russia party that split from Putin's United Russia.
The election commission's official decision on Yavlinsky's candidacy is scheduled for Friday, but experts, who said they had expected Yavlinsky to be approved to provide a semblance of pluralism in the race, saw no chance now that he would be able to continue.
Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Efficient Politics Foundation and a onetime Kremlin advisor, said Russian leaders must have changed tactics in reaction to the movement protesting the conduct of parliamentary elections in December and the prospect of Putin reclaiming the presidency.
"It is clear that Putin intends to win the vote in the first round, and given that the most recent surveys give him about 44% support, he may need every extra vote that could come his way," Pavlovsky said."By winning in the first round, Putin wants to send all the bureaucrats across the country a signal that he is still powerful enough to control the situation."
But he said Putin's effort could backfire by putting the legitimacy of his election in doubt.
Yavlinsky's party got 3% of the vote in the official results of the parliamentary elections, which many Putin foes regard as being fraudulent.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency that it was absurd to protest the decision of the Central Election commission, and invited Yavlinsky's followers to support his boss.
"I am sure with time they will be able to find thoughts corresponding to their thinking in the ideas, concepts and views published recently by Vladimir Putin," Peskov said.
It is not clear whether Prokhorov, whose support in presidential polls is currently about 4%, is working in conjunction with the Kremlin or is an independent candidate.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: Yabloko party founder Grigory Yavlinsky hands in boxes of petition signatures to support his presidential candidacy at the Central Election Commission in Moscow on Jan. 18. Credit: Yuri Kochetov / EPA