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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lugovoi Latest to Muse on Kremlin Bid

MTZhirinovsky speaking to journalists during an impromptu photo opportunity with Lugovoi, center, and Lebedev during an LDPR conference on Monday.
Despite a tangible feeling of unease in Moscow's lavish Surikov Hall, delegates to the Liberal Democratic Party's 19th congress on Monday almost unanimously confirmed Andrei Lugovoi's place on the party's ticket for December's State Duma elections.

But Lugovoi, the former Federal Guard Service officer wanted in Britain for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, soon found himself talking about even higher office, telling journalists less than an hour after his confirmation that he would not rule out running in March's presidential election.

The delegates approved the list, with LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the first spot, Lugovoi in the second, and Zhirinovsky's son Igor Lebedev in the third spot, by 148-2 in a secret ballot. While many of the delegates said they had been surprised by Lugovoi's nomination, most still supported it as a move to generate publicity, shrugging off questions about his political credentials.

"It is important that most simple Russians view him as someone who has liquidated a traitor," Vladislav Ignatov, a former Duma deputy currently working in the Audit Chamber, said on the sidelines of the congress, adding that an assessment of Lugovoi's abilities as a politician could come only after he had started work in the Duma.

Lugovoi, who sat silently on the panel during most of the day, made it clear at a news conference in the afternoon that he would take his place in the Duma if the LDPR made it over the 7 percent barrier required to qualify for seats.

Asked by a journalist whether he had any other political ambitions, he said: "Like any other citizen of the Russian Federation, I would like to be president."

The comment appeared to paraphrase an answer given by President Vladimir Putin on Friday to a question about the possible presidential aspirations of newly confirmed Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov.

British prosecutors have demanded Lugovoi's extradition to face trial in London for the murder of Kremlin critic Litvinenko, a former security services officer who died in a London hospital on Nov. 23 of radiation poisoning.

Russian prosecutors and government officials have repeatedly refused the request, citing a constitutional prohibition of handing citizens over to other countries.

If the LDPR makes it into the next Duma and Lugovoi takes his seat as a deputy, it would add a new twist to the story, as Duma members enjoy immunity from prosecution.

A British Embassy spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said Lugovoi's inclusion on the LDPR list did not change Britain's position.

"We are still keen to secure his extradition," the spokesman said by telephone.

Lugovoi denies that he killed Litvinenko, blaming the accusations and the poisoning itself on British intelligence services and self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

Some delegates welcomed Lugovoi as a symbol of Russia's struggle against Berezovsky, who is wanted in Russia for fraud and calling for the overthrow of the government.

"Our biggest enemy today is in England," said LDPR Duma Deputy Yury Kogan, adding that Lugovoi's appointment to the federal list would help the party.

Kogan refused to comment on whether Lugovoi was involved in Litvinenko's death. "We support the official state line that this man should not be labeled guilty before he has been tried," he said.

Not all of the delegates were as positive about Lugovoi's inclusion on the party list.

"I do not think that Lugovoi is well-known in our republic or in other regions," said Natalya Smirnova, a delegate from Tatarstan. In a rare show of dissent, Smirnova was alone in holding up her voting card to oppose some of the day's motions.

She also questioned Lugovoi's qualifications, pointing out that Zhirinovsky himself told the congress that State Duma deputies should be highly professional and, ideally, have served years in regional legislatures before moving to the federal level.

"[Lugovoi] does not have that experience," she said.

But many at the conference disagreed.

"Zhirinovsky also said that some should become deputies because they have unique capabilities," Kogan said.

The party conference kicked off in the morning with Zhirinovsky launching into a trademark harangue against the West in an hour-long address titled "global civil war." He told the delegates that Western powers were once again conspiring against the country and that Western models of democracy were designed to destroy Russia, just as he said they were behind the destruction of the Soviet Union. He told delegates that Russia was a special historical case, as it had always been governed from above and not by the population.

In particular, he said the Sept. 11 attacks were a U.S.-led plot to justify the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and the bombing threat against Iran, all of which have been done "only for oil."

Zhirinovsky's speech included a major mix-up, when he said the European powers' "ambitions" had long been hampered by the ocean to their west, "the Pacific," pointing to the Atlantic Ocean on a map.

As for the party's prospects in December, he said he expected it would garner 15 percent of the vote, but that it should aim for 20 percent. Polls have put the LDPR's support at just above the vital 7 percent mark to make it into the Duma.