MOSCOW (AFP) — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday warned Russians to vote for his party in elections or face a return to "humiliation" as a prominent critic accused him of leading Russia toward dictatorship.
In a televised address, Putin urged voters to back United Russia, warning that the liberal opposition would return Russia to the "humiliation, dependency and disintegration" it suffered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin leader spoke just hours before former chess champion turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, just released after five days in prison, denounced Putin's leadership.
"This regime is entering a very dangerous phase that is turning it into a dictatorship," Kasparov told journalists.
United Russia is forecast to win a big majority in the State Duma lower house of parliament in general elections on Sunday. The tiny liberal parties are not expected to win a single seat and complain they are victims of heavy-handed Kremlin tactics.
"We should not allow back into power the people who... want to change and muddle Russia's development plans," Putin said ahead of the vote.
The 55-year-old Kremlin leader warned against the "dangerous illusion" of believing his legacy was safe and also appeared to confirm he would step down next year.
The television address had been closely watched for any sign of Putin's plans after he completes his second term next year, when the constitution requires he must relinquish the presidency.
Former chess world champion Kasparov who now leads The Other Russia opposition coalition vowed to continue fighting Putin's policies and accused him of resorting to fear and repression ahead of the weekend vote.
"Fear is the only chance this regime has to survive."
Kasparov complained that he had been denied free access to a lawyer during the five days that he spent in a Moscow prison for taking part in an unauthorized rally at the weekend.
Controversy over the fairness of Sunday's polls was growing amid what Kremlin opponents describe as a crackdown aimed at fixing the election results.
US President George W. Bush said he was "deeply concerned" at the break-up of rallies in Moscow and elsewhere in the country. EU countries and Amnesty International also criticised the Kremlin.
Although as president he cannot actually take a Duma seat, Putin heads the electoral list of United Russia, which is presenting the parliamentary election as a referendum on the ex-KGB officer's highly popular rule.
Putin has repeatedly said he intends to retain a major role, prompting speculation that he might hang on to power, or at least retain influence through a handpicked successor.
"The result of the election will be the preliminary stage for Putin to make decisions," said Kasparov.
He said Putin would have to decide "whether he is ready to turn into a full-blown dictator and if he is still trying to pretend that he has some sort of democratic clout."
Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev also expressed concern in comments quoted by ITAR-TASS news agency
Calls from United Russia for Putin to stay on as "national leader" were confusing, he said. "Maybe they have already decided what it means, or maybe they will surprise us with something else, although nothing would surprise me."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) earlier this month called off its election monitoring mission for the Russian elections, citing a lack of cooperation from Moscow, a claim Russia denied.
In Madrid, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said Washington firmly opposed a Russian proposal to reform the OSCE's election monitoring arm -- its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights -- ODIHR -- because it would weaken the key body.
"The US will protect ODIHR," Burns told reporters in Madrid, where he is attending the OSCE's annual meeting.
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