Communists accuse Kremlin of smear campaign

Moscow (AFP) –


Russia's Communists on Tuesday appealed to President Vladimir Putin in an open letter accusing Kremlin "provocateurs" of running a smear campaign against their presidential candidate.

The Communist Party chose a new face for the March 18 polls, opting for businessman Pavel Grudinin rather than veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The party complains that Grudinin has faced a barrage of negative coverage in state-controlled and pro-Kremlin media, focusing on his foreign bank accounts and property.

In an open letter to Putin, Communist leader Zyuganov complained that "provocateurs close to the Kremlin" were "using the most unworthy methods to blacken the leading opposition party that is supported by millions of voters."

He urged the Kremlin to "rein in" such mud-slingers and prevent them causing "mayhem" on Russian television channels, in order to ensure a "free choice for citizens."

Zyuganov praised Grudinin, who is currently backed by seven percent of Russians according to VTsIOM state pollsters, calling him a "man who has shown wonderful results in economic and social development."

Analysts say the Kremlin is concerned Grudinin, the likely runner-up, could do better than expected and take votes away from Putin.

"The Kremlin is nervous of Grudinin and fears he will get more votes than was initially planned and will cast doubt on Putin's unconditional support," said political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.

Unusually, Grudinin is not a party member. He runs a fruit and dairy business on the edge of Moscow with socialist-style perks for workers, backed by profits from selling and leasing valuable land to shopping malls.

The tabloid-style pro-Kremlin Life News website has run almost daily coverage critical of Grudinin since December. State media has also run a negative campaign against him.

The Communist Party -- successor to the Soviet party that held elections with a single candidate -- is in some ways even more hardline. Its leaders regularly lay flowers at the grave of Joseph Stalin.

However, in parliament its MPs often back Kremlin initiatives.