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Many viewed Medvedev's gesture as further proof of his "liberalism" -- a counterbalance to the autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was criticized for his cold-hearted reaction to the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, also a reporter for Novaya Gazeta.
But to get the real picture of who Medvedev is, the believers in his liberalism should look past his superficial photo ops and meaningless statements. Take, for example, a bill Medvedev sent to the State Duma last week. When signed into law, it will allow Kremlin-friendly regional legislatures to remove opposition mayors who were elected by popular vote.
It is no coincidence that Medvedev has taken aim at the country's mayors. Mayoral elections were the last bastion of direct elections after the Duma cancelled the popular vote for governors in 2005. Independent mayors were the only source of political competition against governors who were loyal to the Kremlin and United Russia. Now one of the few remaining checks and balances against the monopoly on executive power in the regions will be removed. After the law is signed by Medvedev, the power vertical will be extended one step further to reach every mayor in the country.
The other part of Medvedev's bill will repeal the so-called deposit provision of the election law. Up until now, candidates who wanted to run for office at any level of government could officially register their candidacy by either collecting the required number of signatures from voters or by paying a deposit to the Central Elections Commission. If a candidate paid the deposit, his candidacy was all but guaranteed since it was difficult for the elections commission to dispute whether the payment was made or not. Now, Medvedev wants to remove the deposit provision. When the only way to register a candidate is through collecting signatures, it will be much easier for the elections commission to bar an opposition candidate by claiming that more than 5 percent of the signatures are invalid.
Remember how opposition candidate Mikhail Kasyanov was removed from last year's presidential election. Fifteen percent of his signatures were ruled invalid. In Buryatia, the Union of Right Forces was barred from the elections because a number of signatories had written "Ulan-Ude" as their place of residence, rather than "Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia," as the elections commission claimed was necessary, even though no other city named Ulan-Ude exists anywhere on Earth.
The review of signatures gives the authorities a carte blanche to abuse their power. The inspection of the lists takes place behind closed doors, where the pro-Kremlin elections commission works with equally pro-Kremlin "handwriting experts" from the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service and Justice Ministry. It thus comes as no surprise that the signatures collected by the ruling party's candidates are consistently recognized as valid, and those gathered by opposition candidates are almost always found to be falsified. Signatures are routinely rejected for such arbitrary reasons as bad handwriting or spelling errors. Courts always side with the elections commission in any dispute.
By next fall, thousands of candidates will be barred from participating in local and regional elections due to "invalid" signatures. The Kremlin will surely leave some "rivals" in the elections to maintain a semblance of democracy, but not enough to pose a serious challenge to its favored candidates.
Russia's near future is becoming increasingly unpredictable as the gap widens between reality and official rhetoric. As the federal budget deficit increases along with inflation, while the ruble falls to new levels against the dollar, the very existence of Putin's authoritarian power vertical is in danger of collapsing along with the economy.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.