Russia on Wednesday denied registration to a new political party created by three prominent opposition leaders, effectively barring them from participating in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Justice Ministry's decision on whether to register the People's Freedom Party was seen as a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's pledges to increase political competition in Russia. Opposition parties were squeezed out of politics under his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who remains powerful as prime minister.
Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Putin's prime minister from 2000 to 2004 and is now one of the opposition party's leaders, bluntly described Medvedev's pledges as empty words.
"Nothing that has been said or promised by Medvedev during these past three years has materialized," Kasyanov said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. "It has only gotten worse: that is more pressure on political opponents, even more falsification in regional elections."
The Justice Ministry gave a number of reasons for denying the registration, including that its charter does not provide for a rotation of its leadership as is required by a new law.
The ministry's one-page written decision also said it had found violations in the required 45,000 signatures the party had submitted with its application: Some of those who signed as members of the party were dead, under age or not legal residents of the regions where they signed.
Also, some people listed as party members had provided written denials of their membership, the ministry said.
Kasyanov, who insisted the party had met all the legal requirements for registration, said some people who joined the party had been summoned by police or security officers, who asked why they had joined the opposition party and whether they understood they could lose their job or their children would lose the opportunity to study at university.
Medvedev most recently spoke about the importance of political competition in an interview with the Financial Times published this week. Without political competition, he said, "the fundamentals of a market economy start to fall apart."
But he said he would not face off with Putin in the March 2012 presidential vote.
When asked why not, Medvedev answered:
"Well, I've just told you, the goal of participating in the elections is not to facilitate the development of free competition, the goal is to win."
Medvedev and Putin say they will decide between them which one of them will run, but the decision is understood to be Putin's. Neither is likely to face any serious challengers.
Only parties that are represented in parliament have the right to put forward a presidential candidate without going through the cumbersome process of gathering at least 2 million signatures spread equally among at least 40 of Russia's 83 provinces. These signatures rarely pass the Justice Ministry's scrutiny.
The parliament was brought under Kremlin control after changes during Putin's presidency that denied seats to liberal critics, including the other two leaders of the People's Freedom Party.
One is Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, whose Union of Right Forces party lost all its seats in parliament when it failed to receive 5 percent of the vote in 2003.
The other, Vladimir Ryzhkov, held onto his seat in parliament as an independent until the 2007 election, when the rules were changed to restrict voting to party lists. The party threshold was also raised at the time to 7 percent, where it remains despite statements from Medvedev in 2009 that it should eventually be lowered to 5 or even 3 percent.