Forgery probe opens against Putin’s challenger

>MOSCOW (AP) – Prosecutors announced a forgery investigation Tuesday against the campaign of the only liberal Kremlin critic still in Russia’s presidential race, a contest already expected to be won easily by Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked candidate to succeed him.

Liberal opposition groups are small and weak, and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov has been given no chance in the election, even if the probe doesn’t push him out of the race.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general’s office, Tatiana Chernyshova, said on state television that the investigation involved possible forged signatures on nominating petitions for Kasyanov.

If more than 5 percent of signatures submitted by a campaign are forged, a candidate cannot be registered to run, Central Elections Commission member Yelena Dubrovina said.

Kasyanov was Putin’s first prime minister, but was dismissed in 2004 and later became a vocal critic of the president. He has accused Putin of damaging Russia’s democracy and running roughshod over constitutional rights.

He had called for a boycott of the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections, arguing the Kremlin put up insurmountable barriers for its opponents.

Even if Kasyanov is permitted to run, he doesn’t have a wide following and is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the politician backed by the hugely popular Putin, Dmitry Medvedev.

Some opposition figures have been unable to get on the next ballot, the March 2 presidential contest to choose a successor for Putin, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.