MOSCOW - Russia's elections commission said Tuesday that a prominent opposition leader will be disqualified from running for president in March, a move that would prevent his party from fielding observers.
Russian news agencies quoted elections commission secretary Nikolai Konkin as saying that the body would formally block Grigory Yavlinsky from the ballot later this week, after finding that hundreds of thousands of the signatures submitted on his nominating petition were invalid.
Yavlinsky is a leader of the liberal Yabloko party and a critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a return to the presidency in the March 4 election. Putin is seen as all but certain to win the election; Yavlinsky was unlikely to attract significant voter support.
But the rejection of his candidacy is likely to sharpen political tensions that have been strong since last month's unprecedented massive protests sparked by alleged fraud in parliamentary elections.
"Yavlinsky does not have so many supporters, but the negative effect of this decision will be much wider than the dissatisfaction of Yavlinsky supporters and will give reason to speak, including in the West, of a managed election," political analyst Mikhail Rezimov was quoted as telling the state news agency RIA Novosti.
Party head Sergei Mitrokhin said in a statement that "We insist that all the signatures submitted to the Central Elections Commission in support of Yavlinsky's nomination are real, the real signatures of citizens."
Although Yavlinsky has not been a key figure of those protests, his party fielded thousands of election observers in the December election who documented evidence of fraud in favour of Putin's United Russia party.
On Monday, Yavlinsky said authorities wanted to prevent him from running in order to block genuine competition. He says other candidates are only nominal rivals and are following Kremlin guidance.
Yabloko has not had any seats in the parliament since 2007. Politicians who want to run for president but whose parties are not in parliament must submit 2 million signatures in support of their candidacy.
Konkin said that examinations of about 600,000 of the signatures submitted to support Yavlinsky's nomination found some 25 per cent of them to be invalid, largely because the signatures were photocopied. That is higher than the 5-per cent rejection level allowed by law.
"At the end of the week, the Central Elections Commission will hold a session, at which the registration of Yavlinsky will be officially refused," he said, according to RIA Novosti.
By excluding him from the presidential race, the commission would prevent Yabloko from sending observers for the presidential election. Observers at the polls can only be named by participants in the race.
Excluding Yavlinsky would be "a blow to the legitimacy of the election for president of the Russian Federation," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted candidate Mikhail Prokhorov as saying Monday.
Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, also had to submit millions of signatures and election officials said they fell within the validity criteria.