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Putins anointed heir opens presidential campaign with call for crackdown on graft in Russia
Russia Medvedev MOS 5588110
Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gestures during a Kremlin-organized forum of civil society organizations in the Manezh exhibition center in Moscow, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's presumed next president, opened his campaign on Tuesday with a sharp criticism of disregard for the law in his country and a call for stepping up the fight against corruption on a "huge scale." - photo by Associated Press
    MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin’s likely successor opened his election campaign Tuesday with a promise of stability and continued economic growth for Russia and called for a redoubled effort to root out corruption.
    Dmitry Medvedev also took a softer tone than Putin toward the West, saying U.S. and European criticism of Russian policies stemmed from misconceptions. But he signaled no shift from Moscow’s assertive foreign policy.
    With the support of the highly popular Putin, Medvedev is all but assured of winning the March 2 presidential vote. Opposition parties are weak and some presidential hopefuls have been kept off the ballot.
    Medvedev’s call for a crackdown on corruption came as prosecutors accused the campaign of Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who is the only liberal Kremlin critic left in the race, of forging signatures on election petitions.
    Kasyanov, who accuses Putin of strangling democracy and violating rights, said his campaign was the victim of ‘‘an orgy of lawlessness’’ by authorities. He claimed his activists were intimidated into signing false confessions that signatures were faked.
    Medvedev emphasized the need for stability during a more than 30-minute speech at a forum of civic organizations. He pointed to the economic and political upheaval that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse and said Putin’s presidency laid the foundation for prosperity.
    ‘‘The most important thing for our country is the continuation of calm and stable development,’’ he said. ‘‘We need decades of stable development that our country has been deprived of.’’
    Medvedev has promised to appoint Putin as his prime minister if elected, enabling Putin to keep a strong hand in power even after he is forced out of the presidency by term limits.
    A lawyer and teacher by training, Medvedev read his address in measured tones with fastidious pronunciation. He dealt mostly in generalities and stayed far from the kind of aggressive and biting comments Putin is known for.
    Medvedev’s strongest statement was about corruption.
    ‘‘Russia is a country of legal nihilism at a level ... that no European country can boast of,’’ he said. ‘‘Corruption in the official structures has a huge scale and the fight against it should become a national program.’’
    Putin and his lieutenants have repeatedly pledged to move against graft, but organizations that measure corruption say the problem has worsened during his presidency.
    While Putin has taken an increasingly assertive foreign policy line, accusing the West of trying to weaken Russia, Medvedev tread more softly. He said the West’s attitude to Russia is driven by a lack of information and misjudgment of the Kremlin’s intentions.
    ‘‘We should continue to openly and clearly explain our actions and plans in the economic, social sphere and politics, and find more allies in the world,’’ he said. ‘‘Russia in the future will continue developing as a nation open for dialogue and cooperation with the international community.’’
    Medvedev defended Russia’s efforts to expand its role in energy markets, which critics see as part of a plan to use its oil and gas reserves to exert political influence in Europe and elsewhere. He said Russia is simply acting in its own interest.
    He also said Russia has no need to apologize for its ties to what he called ‘‘problem countries,’’ clearly a reference to nations such as Iran. He said dealing with such nations is part of Russia’s international responsibilities.
    In an apparent reference to Western criticism, he said some nations had become accustomed to viewing Russia as a struggling country that should eagerly follow guidance from abroad. These nations, he said, had been stunned by Russia’s oil-fueled rapid economic recovery.
    ‘‘Modern Russia has every chance to become a successful state,’’ he said.
    Medvedev’s approval ratings soared after Putin anointed him as his preferred successor last month, helped by positive coverage from national television stations, all controlled by the Kremlin.
    The latest opinion poll conducted by the All-Russia Opinion Research Center, which also has links to the Kremlin, said more than 60 percent of respondents said they would vote for Medvedev. The nationwide poll of 1,600 people had a margin of error of three percentage points.
    Besides Medvedev, two other candidates have registered as presidential candidates, but neither presents serious competition: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
    The Kremlin has marginalized Russia’s tiny liberal opposition, and the charges involving Kasyanov could push him out of the race. The Prosecutor General’s office said a criminal investigation had been opened against Kasyanov’s campaign for allegedly forging thousands of signatures on his nominating petitions.
    Kasyanov was Putin’s first prime minister but after he was fired in 2004 became a critic of the Kremlin. He is not widely popular, however, and is unlikely to pose a serious challenge if he gets on the ballot.
    ‘‘The government is afraid of direct political confrontation,’’ Kasyanov told reporters, asserting that the decision on whether he would be on the ballot would depend on the Kremlin.
    ‘‘It’s not up to the Central Election Commission, it’s up to Vladimir Putin,’’ he said.

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