By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky could be barred from running against Vladimir Putin in a presidential election after officials said Monday there were problems with his registration as a candidate.
Opinion polls show Yavlinsky has no chance of winning the March 4 election but the refusal to let him run would be a slap in the face for leaders of protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding fair elections and political reform.
Central Election Commission officials told Russian news agencies there were errors in about a quarter of the 2 million signatures of support Yavlinsky had submitted as a requirement to enter the election, much higher than the permitted amount.
A final decision on his candidacy is expected to be announced by the commission later this week or next.
Reducing the number of candidates could improve Putin's chances of winning the election in the first round, avoiding a run-off he would face if he does not receive at least 50 percent of the votes cast.
"This is a totally political decision," Yavlinsky, 59, told a news conference, a view shared by other opposition leaders and representatives of the Yabloko party he co-founded.
Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin wrote in a blog: "Putin will decide this matter himself."
Mitrokhin suggested Putin did not want Yavlinsky to run because it could take votes from billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a liberal contender who he said was backed by Putin.
Mitrokhin also indicated that Yabloko representatives would be unable to monitor the election if Yavlinsky, who has twice run for president and lost, did not take part.
Election officials said Monday Prokhorov's candidacy had been confirmed after he submitted enough signatures.
PUTIN FACES CRITICISM
As independent candidates, Prokhorov and Yavlinsky had to collect 2 million signatures. Candidates from parties in parliament, such as Communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, did not have to meet this requirement.
Prokhorov, whose assets in an $18-billion business empire include the New Jersey Nets, has dismissed rivals' allegations that he is a Kremlin tool who has been allowed to run to split the opposition and give the election an air of legitimacy.
Putin, 59, was president for eight years from 2000 and ushered his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, into the post in 2008 because the constitution barred him from a third successive term. Putin became prime minister but remained Russia's dominant leader.
Opinion polls suggest Putin will easily win the election but his image has been dented by unusually large protests in Russia since a parliamentary election on December 4 which independent monitors say was slanted to favor his United Russia party.
Tens of thousands of people have taken part in protests since then, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, to demand the election be rerun, the election commission chief dismissed and more opposition parties registered.
Human Rights Watch, an international rights monitor, said in its annual report released Sunday that Putin's decision to run for a six-year, third term as president cast a shadow over prospects for political reforms.
It also said pro-government parties had benefited from "disproportionate access to media and abuse of administrative resources."
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)