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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democrats Pondering Alliances

Two minor presidential candidates who bill themselves as part of the democratic opposition laid down their conditions Thursday for putting their support behind a single candidate to challenge acting President Vladimir Putin.

But at their separate news conferences, Samara regional Governor Konstantin Titov and Yevgeny Savostyanov, a former security official who was once a member of former President Boris Yeltsin's administration, made clear they have very different ideas on how such an alliance could be formed.

The two men also used the occasion to deny allegations they had used fake signatures to qualify for the race.

Savostyanov said he was ready to pull out of the race if he, Titov and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky can agree on a single candidate among them, and only if the three sign a document agreeing to continue their cooperation after the March 26 vote.

Titov said he was negotiating with Savostyanov about nominating a single presidential candidate with liberal credentials. "It is a normal, good and perhaps fruitful idea," Titov said. "It is important to define on whom to put the stake."

Titov, however, ruled out any alliance with Yavlinsky, who has a history of avoiding alliances.

Savostyanov said the three candidates should determine which of them has the most support, and the other two should drop out. But he insisted he will run unless the trio agrees on a single candidate.

Opinion polls show Yavlinsky running third behind Putin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Savostyanov insisted that only a "unification of efforts" of the three candidates may help the supporters of democracy in Russia prevail over the "proponents of dictatorship," who he said support either Putin or Zyuganov.

"If Zyuganov wins we will have a dictatorship with elements of socialism, while if Putin wins we will have the same dictatorship but with elements of capitalism," said Savostyanov, 48, who once headed the security services' Moscow branch.

A spokesman for Yavlinsky's Yabloko party, Yevgenia Dillendorf, confirmed that he was talking to Savostyanov about an alliance but said Yavlinsky was not considering withdrawing his candidacy, Interfax reported.

Titov's main thrust at his news conference was to declare his stern opposition to the constitutional reform proposals expressed last week by three governors - Vladimir Prusak of Novgorod, Oleg Bogomolov of Kurgan and Yevgeny Savchenko of Belgorod. In an open letter, they proposed extending the presidential term to seven years and having regional governors and city mayors appointed by Moscow.

Titov, a reform-oriented governor who has succeeded in drawing foreign investment to his Volga River region, decried the proposal as a "detailed plan of the liquidation of democratic achievements in Russia."

Putin said Monday he would support the idea of a seven-year presidency, but it should only be "put before the population" after this year's elections.

Titov said Thursday that appointing governors would "break the ties between the power and the people," pave the way for "dynasty" rule from Moscow and suppress any dissenting opinions.

The liquidation of the existing regions and creation of larger administrative units, also proposed by the three governors, would "deprive the regions not only of political but also of economic independence."

Titov said the proposal was a "trial balloon" to test the democratic convictions of society. "Someone threw a stone to watch the circles on the water," he said. Although he was "not sure," Titov said the proposal probably emerged "with the Kremlin's approval."

Titov half-heartedly denied that his campaign had hired companies to collect signatures in his support for pay. It was announced earlier this week that prosecutors are investigating such allegations against Titov, Savostyanov and Moscow businessman Umar Dzhabrailov. The allegations first aired last Saturday on government-owned RTR television.

Savostyanov said Thursday he trusted that the signatures collected on his behalf were genuine. Each candidate was obliged to provide at least 500,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

Schemes in which self-styled entrepreneurs receive signature sheets from various electoral headquarters and hire people, mostly students, to gather signatures in "packages" for several candidates simultaneously have long been a staple of Russian campaigns.

Forging of signatures is a different matter, and a sort of quality control at every level, from student organizers to the Central Election Commission, weeds out suspicious-looking sheets.

Titov called the investigation "nothing other than the cleansing of the political space, or maybe even an attempt to cancel the elections altogether." He did not elaborate.

Some circles within the Kremlin are considering options other than Putin's seemingly inevitable presidency, Titov said. "To me personally, it is clear that Putin today is not [the Kremlin's] candidate without an alternative," he said.

Titov, who vigorously supported the pro-Putin liberals of the Union of Right Forces, struggled Thursday to sell himself as a leader of a "democratic opposition." At the news conference, he appeared nervous, shouted at journalists who asked uncomfortable questions and preferred grand declarations about democracy to concrete answers about his campaign team or plans after the first round of elections.