|19 December 2011
Vladimir Putin has been rattled by recent protests against his rule and would lose an honest presidential election if he had the guts to allow one, a former Russian prime minister has claimed.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister under Mr Putin from 2000-2004, alleged that Mr Putin was running scared.
"He is angry and frightened and has lost his self-control," said Mr Kasyanov, who tried to run against Mr Putin for the presidency in 2008, only to be disqualified on what he said was a trumped-up technicality.
"Putin understands that social pressure on him is growing all the time. He is nervous."
Mr Kasyanov, who used to be on good terms with the strongman Russian leader until he and his cabinet were unceremoniously fired by the then president in 2004, said he felt it was the beginning of the end for Mr Putin.
"For the first time I have no doubt that if I or one of my colleagues was registered as a presidential candidate we would definitely win in the second round of voting. Putin has no doubt of that too, which is why he is afraid of us."
One of the leaders of the anti-Kremlin People's Freedom Party or Parnas, Mr Kasyanov, 54, was among the speakers at last weekend's anti-government protest in Moscow last weekend that was attended by up to 50,000 people.
Amid growing anger among the middle classes at rampant official corruption, authoritarianism, and the total dominance of Mr Putin and his allies, it was the biggest protest of its kind since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
Mr Kasyanov was singled out for special criticism by Mr Putin in a televised question and answer session on Thursday. In one of many furious tirades, Mr Putin claimed that Mr Kasyanov had been planning to challenge him for the presidency even when he was his prime minister and hinted darkly that his former subordinate was corrupt, something Mr Kasyanov has always categorically denied.
Mr Putin, who has been in power for almost 12 years as either president or prime minister, is confronted by the biggest challenge to his authority yet. Determined to return to the presidency for a controversial third time in May next year, he is facing calls to resign from the country.s squeezed middle class after an allegedly rigged parliamentary election earlier this month.
Mr Putin's ruling United Russia party saw its share of the vote fall by 15 per cent in the contested election and Mr Putin's own popularity rating has slumped to 51 per cent, its lowest level this year, a new poll showed on Friday.
Mr Kasyanov said people were simply sick of corruption and the total lack of democracy in every walk of life. "There was never full democracy in Russia but there were at least some attempts to build it. But now there is nothing left."
Controversially, Mr Kasyanov said his party would not even be attempting to register a candidate for the forthcoming presidential election however.
Candidates require two million signatures to run and Mr Kasyanov said he and his colleagues were certain the Kremlin would dream up a false pretext to block them just as they had banned them from taking part in this month's parliamentary election on a technicality.
"The elections are not free," he said. "The collection of signatures rule is a mechanism to prevent independent candidates from running in elections without the Kremlin.s approval. We want to take part and we are ready to take part but we cannot." Instead, he explained, his party might lend their support to Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the small liberal Yabloko (Apple) party whose views were closest to his own.
The aim, he said, was to keep up the pressure on Mr Putin, including through protests, and to make sure that the March 4 presidential election was free and fair.
"Our aim is not to let Putin back into the Kremlin and to do that we need to isolate him completely including morally," he said.
When asked to say when he thought Mr Putin might be forced from power, Mr Kasyanov rejected any parallels with the Arab spring or so-called colour revolutions in other parts of the former Soviet Union and conceded that dethroning the former KGB spy would not be an easy process.
"There will be no revolution as we are committed to only using peaceful methods," he said.
Instead, he explained, the opposition was convinced that disenchantment with Mr Putin would eventually become so great that it would prompt people to stop taking his orders and possibly trigger a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience.
"If Putin wins an obviously falsified election in March the wave of protests against him will be enormous,. he predicted. "We are predicting serious changes in the spring or in one or two years when people cotton on to the fact that they have been conned and the authorities will no longer be able to rule."
In the meantime he said the opposition had understood from Mr Putin.s punchy, four-and-a-half hour question and answer session on state television that he was not going to give in easily. "He is not giving up," said Mr Kasyanov.
"But the battle continues and sooner or later we will win."
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