Russian opposition fails to unite

The opposition coalition Other Russia is holding its annual conference in Moscow this weekend. It brings together the Kremlin's harshest critics who hope to come up with a united opposition candidate for the 2008 presidential elections, but it seems that

Just months ago unity was all that mattered.

“We're already preparing for elections next year. If we unite we'll manage to defeat this regime,” Mikhail Kasayanov then said speaking through a bullhorn at the dissenters' march in St. Petersburg on March 3.

But opposition leaders can no longer agree who'll hold a loudspeaker. Mikhail Kasyanov, one of the founders of the Other Russia coalition, has walked away to lead his own party.

Opposition leaders may have been united in their dislike of the current Kremlin's leadership, but their own desire to sit there is what drew them apart. For months now, they've been trying to agree on a common presidential candidate but battling their own ambitions proved trickier than challenging political rivals.

The break-up comes a year after the coalition was formed. Its composition surprised many: a former prime minister, an ex-chess champion and a leader of an outlawed National Bolsheviks movement who advocates the creation of pan-European empire under Russian dominance. A year ago they presented a united front. But now they say they are just too different.

“We believe it was important to keep the coalition democratic to show we're distinct from the existing power vertical. Mikhail Kasyanov and his organisation hold a rather peculiar point of view related to the ambitions of Mr Kasyanov himself, and at the present stage I see this contradiction as totally unworkable,” said ex-chess champion Gary Kasparov, member of Other Russia.

The coalition is best known for organising a series of rallies across Russia. Some protesters were against the Kremlin's alleged offence against democratic values while others turned up to challenge non-political causes, like the construction of a Gazprom skyscraper in St. Petersburg. The rallies received a lot of attention in the West but limited support at home.

“All the polls show that no more than 1% or 2% of Russians would vote for the Other Russia coalition,” said Valery Fyodorov from Russian Public Opinion Research.

A standing aviation from supporters, national flags behind the back and the Russian anthem playing in his honour: Mikhail Kasyanov never shied away from presidential treatment. He now plans to revamp his own party to run for Russia's highest post in 2008, but his political rivals are sceptical.

“His reputation is ambiguous, even when it comes to democratic values. During his time as Prime Minister many democratic freedoms were scaled back. And now he says he is guarantor of these freedoms,” Vladimir Ryzhkov from the Russian Republican Party said.

“Mr Kasyanov was both Prime Minister and Finance Minister. How can he be in opposition? In opposition to whom?” asks Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Liberal Democratic Party leader.

This may be a hot topic for politicians, but with presidential elections more than eight months away, it's still leaving ordinary voters cold.