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Reuters, "Kremlin rival Khakamada says expects poll ban"

By Ron Popeski
    MOSCOW, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Liberal standardbearer Irina Khakamada, who accuses President Vladimir Putin of using Chechen separatism to boost his standing, is convinced she will be refused permission to take on the Kremlin leader in March polls.
    Khakamada, 48, wants to challenge Putin's highly favoured bid to secure a second term after the disastrous showing by Russia's divided liberals in December parliamentary polls.
    Her Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and Yabloko won only a handful of seats, crushed by the pro-Putin United Russia party.
    As there is no agreement on a joint liberal challenger, she is gathering the two million signatures necessary to register for the March 14 presidential election -- if the all-powerful Kremlin administrative machine lets her.
    "I believe I will not be registered. This will be a litmus test. Given my tough opposition to Putin and the Kremlin, I don't think anyone will let me take part," Khakamada, daughter of a Japanese Communist, said in a weekend interview.
    Speaking in her modest office, Khakamada dismissed suggestions by commentators that running against Putin suited the Kremlin by giving the semblance of a democratic election.
    "After such a declaration?" she laughed, referring to her  comments last week that Putin exploited the 2002 seizure of a Moscow theatre by Chechen militants to his advantage.
    "If they really believed we needed proper elections, we wouldn't have had such an outcome in the parliamentary election. If they do let me through, everything will be done to eliminate any chance of getting six or seven percent of the vote and to turn it into a humiliation -- 0.5 percent, 0.2 percent."
    That, she said, will mean mobilising state-run television, which broadcasts Putin's every move, and digging into a bag of dirty tricks in a society suspicious of foreigners, ambitious women and the wealthy "oligarch" businessmen linked to the SPS.
    "Everything will be hammered home," she said. "The line will be 'What sort of president is this?' There will be talk of oligarchs, women, Japanese blood, my four marriages."
    Khakamada is proud of her "aristocratic" Japanese ancestry, traced to 11th century samurai warriors. Her role model is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose autographed portrait stands by her desk, and whose "steel nerves" she admires.
    Under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the articulate Khakamada was minister for small business, one of the few women in senior positions in Russia. She later became one of three leaders of the SPS -- favoured by Putin for a time.
    She accused Putin last week of "state terrorism" in the theatre siege in which 129 hostages died, most of them from a gas used to help special forces storm the building. Russia, she said, was a society based on fear.
    The drive against Chechen separatists was a trump card for Putin in the 2000 poll, so her accusations surely went down badly in the Kremlin.
    She lamented the disarray of liberal leaders, the driving force behind "perestroika" reforms at the end of Soviet rule but now viewed by many impoverished Russians as misguided idealists.
    "All we need is to consolidate 10-15 percent of the vote to advance an effective political project. There is no need to fear the Kremlin...no need to demonise President Putin."
    Women, she said, could best reform a Russia she likened to a kitchen piled with dirty dishes and infested with cockroaches.
    "A Russian man comes into the kitchen, sees the horror, closes the door and goes out to eat in a restaurant," she said.
    "A woman sees the kitchen has potential and starts washing up. Only women do not talk endlessly of things being impossible, of Putin being too powerful. That's why I'm running."