Russia ex-PM says Putin legacy hangs on fair vote

Russian President Vladimir Putin must make sure next year's election to choose his successor is fair if he wants to leave a legacy that people will respect, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told Reuters .

Just over two months before the March 2 presidential vote, critics allege Putin will exploit his power and control over the biggest media outlets to ensure victory for Dmitry Medvedev, the man he endorsed to replace him.

Kasyanov worked alongside Putin until he was sacked in 2004 and is now planning to run for president on an opposition ticket. He said that for all Putin's anti-Western rhetoric, the Russian leader craved respect and acceptance abroad.

"We believe that President Putin and his close friends should think about their future," the 50-year-old Kasyanov said in an interview late on Wednesday. "They would like to be respected by Russian citizens and democratic friends abroad.

"For Putin it is much better to depart and to demonstrate that he is .. (holding) free and fair elections."

"In this case he could retain this respect he is dreaming about. Otherwise, I don't believe foreign leaders will shake his hand," said Kasyanov.

The popular Putin has to step down in line with a constitutional ban on heads of state serving three consecutive terms. His endorsement means Medvedev is almost certain to win.

Putin has said he is ready to serve as prime minister under a Medvedev administration, an arrangement welcomed by many Russians and investors who associate Putin -- named this week by Time magazine as its man of the year -- with stability.

But the election will be a test of Putin's commitment to democracy. European democracy watchdogs accused him this month of abusing his power to hand an overwhelming win to his supporters in a parliamentary election.

Kasyanov is very much an outsider in the presidential vote. A VTsIOM poll gives him zero percent support against 45 percent for Medvedev.

Some parts of the Russian media have nicknamed him "Misha 2 percent" because of rumors he took kickbacks on contracts in the government. No evidence of this has been produced and he strenuously denies any wrongdoing.

But his background -- he was also a finance minister and debt negotiator -- lends weight to his views on the economy.

A fluent English speaker, he said the Kremlin was caught in an inflationary trap that in the next two years would expose the economic stability under Putin as a sham.

Consumer price inflation has returned to double digits and is set to hit 12 percent this year. The government has imposed price caps on consumer staples but most economists say that can only lead to shortages of goods.

Applying the most effective tool against inflation -- reducing the availability of cash in the economy -- would batter banks who are already struggling with the effects of the global liquidity squeeze.

In turn, said Kasyanov, that would force banks to end a lending spree that has fuelled a huge boom in consumer spending, putting money in peoples' pockets and driving economic growth.

He said both the problem and the remedy will have the same effect: a reduction in consumer spending power that is already giving some voters second thoughts about Putin and his team.

"People have started to understand that there is something going wrong in our country," Kasyanov said in his plush penthouse office with a view of the Kremlin in the distance.

"In the last few months people started to understand and feel in their pockets that their ability to buy has decreased for the first time ... since the default," he said, referring to a financial crisis in 1998 that sent markets crashing.

"There is an opportunity to change and prevent a crisis. But if this political course continues then I believe a crisis is inevitable in a short period of time."

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