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Independent Russian Presidential Bid in Jeopardy

The independent presidential bid of Russia's Mikhail Kasyanov is in jeopardy after the Russian prosecutor accused his campaign of forging signatures on a petition required to register for the election. VOA's Peter Fedynsky has more.

In an announcement carried on all major Russian television newscasts, the spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general, Tatyana Chernyshova, said evidence of forgery has emerged in the western Russian town of Rybinsk on nominating petitions filed by opposition candidate Mikhail Kasyanov.

The spokeswoman said similar violations were uncovered by prosecutors in the Volga River province of Mari El. She adds that a regional prosecutor has launched criminal proceedings in the case.

The allegations of forgery in Mari El are said to involve 12,000 signatures.

Last week, Kasyanov filed two million signatures to register as an independent candidate for Russia's March 2 presidential election. Candidates from political parties represented in Parliament are not required to submit signatures.

But a Russian Central Election Commission official, Nikolai Konkin, says a sampling of 400,000 signatures filed by Kasyanov shows more than 15 percent are inadmissible. A candidate is dismissed in Russia if only five percent are deemed invalid. The Commission will review another large sample of signatures before making a determination about Kasyanov's eligibility.

Mikhail Kasyanov served more than three years as prime minister before his dismissal in 2004 by President Vladimir Putin. The former prime minister later became a vocal Kremlin critic.

At a Moscow news conference Tuesday, he accused the Kremlin of engaging in intimidation and defamation, because it fears direct political competition.

Kasyanov says competition would mean opposition access to television, which would allow citizens to learn about alternative views of events in Russia and abroad.

Also present at the news conference were Kasyanov allies from various regions of the country. They told similar stories of official intimidation, including threats of job loss and late night visits to the homes of Kasyanov allies.

Suzanna Tsaraturian says she was questioned by police in Moscow about her gathering signatures for the candidate. She says the police who questioned her usually deal with organized crime.

Tsaraturian notes that gathering signatures is somehow equated with organized crime. She says it is absurd and disgraceful that police arrive without notice and barge into people's homes.

Kasyanov says although he is afraid of the apparent attempt to intimidate him, he has no intention of withdrawing from the presidential race, because he considers that Russia's constitution, democracy, and the country are at stake.

President Putin last month named First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev as his chosen successor. The support is widely viewed as a virtual guarantee of Medvedev's victory.

With less than two months before the election, there have been no debates and virtually no other signs of political campaign.