Russian opposition leaders form coalition to challenge PM Putin, President Medvedev

MOSCOW (AP) — A group of Russia's most prominent opposition leaders formed a coalition Thursday to challenge the ruling duo of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Opposition groups have long claimed the Kremlin rigged the 2007 vote to ensure victory for Putin's United Russia party, then pushed through a new election law that discourages dissent.

Boris Nemtsov, who once served as deputy premier under President Boris Yeltsin, said the new coalition, dubbed "Russia Without Corruption and Lawlessness," aims to compete in next year's parliamentary elections and field a presidential candidate in 2012.

"The ruling regime has created a repressive election law, but it does not mean we can't urge authorities to adhere to the constitution," Nemtsov said.

The law requires parties to get at least 7 percent of the nationwide vote in order to get seats in parliament, barrier that opposition groups say shuts them out of power.

Nemtsov lambasted Putin, now prime minister, for his alleged intention to run for two more presidential terms after already serving two terms as president. Putin's hand-picked successor Medvedev also extended Russia's presidential terms from four years to six years, beginning 2012.

"The prospect of having the great Putin till the year 2024 in our country is a disaster for Russia," Nemtsov said.

Popular support for vocal liberal opposition groups is minimal, but the Kremlin is wary about any evidence of public anger. The liberal opposition forces are fractured: their leaders have faced government intimidation and have been ignored by Kremlin-controlled national television.

Nemtsov said the new coalition will continue holding street rallies that have mostly been banned and brutally dispersed in recent years. Just a few weeks ago, Nemtsov was detained by police at a Moscow rally, a move criticized by European Union lawmakers.

"The regime has destroyed all politics, pushed us onto the streets," he told journalists. "Big rallies are the only way to change things."

Another player in the opposition coalition is Mikhail Kasyanov, who was prime minister during much of Putin's first term as president. Kasyanov was disqualified from the 2008 presidential election for allegedly submitting forged nominating petition signatures.

"Our common goal is to change the political course of Russia," Kasyanov said.

Garry Kasparov, the chess titan who has been one of Russia's top opposition figures, was out of the country Thursday. Nemtsov said he would try to persuade Kasparov to join the coalition.