March 13, 2007 7:11 pm

Official ousted as Kremlin gains control

President Vladimir Putin removed Russia’s elections chief on Tuesday, two days after pro-Kremlin parties had dominated regional polls. Analysts suggested the move was designed to tighten Kremlin control over the political process ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

Alexander Veshnyakov, the head of Russia’s central electoral commission since 1999, was not among Mr Putin’s five nominees to the 15-member commission, due to start a new four-year term in April. No explanation was given in Tuesday’s announ­cement for his exclusion.

Sunday’s regional parliament elections saw the pro-Putin United Russia party win in 13 of 14 regions, with a newly created second pro-Putin party, Just Russia, topping the remaining poll. The results paved the way for the two Kremlin-sponsored parties to dominate elections to the lower house of parliament, the Duma, in December, although the Communists sneaked ahead of Just Russia to be second largest party by average share of the vote.

A strong performance by pro-Kremlin parties in the Duma elections is seen as vital to paving the way for an anointed successor to Mr Putin to win presidential elections next March.

But while the Kremlin has been perfecting what is widely seen as a system of “managed” democracy, Mr Veshnyakov has been critical of changes to electoral rules that have made life more difficult for smaller opposition parties. He has spoken in favour of freedom of choice for voters.

The elections chief opposed a parliamentary bill last summer introducing additional reasons why election candidates could be denied registration, saying it could be used to block any undesirable candidate and lead to “elections without choices, [as in] the Soviet era”. Russia should not return to the days when it had a “sham legislature and sham elections”, he told a magazine. He also spoke out against a Kremlin-sponsored law abolishing a 20 per cent minimum turn-out threshold for elections to be valid.

“Mr Veshnyakov had shown himself to be a very autonomous political figure,” said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow. “On the eve of important elections, [the Kremlin] probably needs somebody who is less personally ambitious, less influential. It reflects a wish to minimise any risks.”

But Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior United Russia official, insisted the next elections chief would be an independent figure. “We will support any professional and decent person,” he said.

Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst, suggested that Mr Veshnyakov had agreed to stand down at the end of his term and would be rewarded with another position.

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