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Russia's opposition is struggling to gain ground in elections

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On the streets and squares of Vladimir Putin's Russia, you will find a band of battle-hardened democrats making their final pitch before this Sunday's parliamentary election, reported Sky News (John Sparks).

They are members of what of some people here call the "real opposition" - a collection of relatively liberal, pro-western political groups who want to eject President Putin and his United Russia party and replace them something decidedly more European.

Still, there are some monumental problems with the master plan.

Of the 450 seats in the Russian parliament - or Duma - only one is held by an independent MP.

His name is Dmitry Gudkov - a 36-year-old former journalist - and he told Sky News that the democratic movement faces extraordinary odds.

"It is complicated, because we are not fighting against the United Russia candidate - we are fighting the administrative resources (of the state), we are fighting against all the media because all the channels and papers are supported by the government," said Mr Gudkov, at one of 200 campaign meetings he has held in his Moscow constituency.

"But the worst thing is that people don't believe (the election) will be fair so they don't participate."

It is this toxic cocktail of voter apathy and institutional bias towards the ruling party that people like Mr Gudkov are trying to fight.

President Putin - and the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev - fly the flag for United Russia with nightly appearances on the television news.

Meanwhile, United Russia's parliamentary candidates seem to be keeping campaign appearances and public engagements to an absolute minimum.

One candidate in the Moscow regime - a former television presenter - told us she would be "happy to talk to us after the election".

Dmitry Lyaskin, from the anti-corruption Progress Party, told me the only way he can get the word out is by holding public meetings at metro stations and sharing promotional literature.

However, he says the government has been making that as difficult as possible.

"If you are from United Russia, you have free access to the billboards and notice boards near every building entrance," he said.

"Our signs are taken down after an hour or two. Did you know city workers get bonuses for taking lots of leaflets at our meetings? It's so they don't end up in the hands of the people."

I decided to see what happened after Mr Lyaskin and a volunteer put signs up on noticeboards on Moscow's Akademika Koroleva Street.

Sure enough, a city contractor came along a tore down Mr Lyaskin's posters, replacing them with fresh United Russia ads.

When I asked him why, he told me "no space on local billboards was available until after the election".

Despite the obstacles a diverse range of people are trying to challenge the system.

We talked to former oil billionaire - turned political exile - Mikhail Khodorkovsky about his Open Russia project.

From his base in Switzerland, he is supporting 19 candidates in Sunday's elections. The idea he says, is to train the next group of people to lead the country when Putin's regime falls.

We also spoke to former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the chairman of the opposition Parnas party.

Mr Kasyanov was filmed in his flat early this year, conducting an affair with a party aide.

The pictures were broadcast on Kremlin-controlled television and the resulting controversy split part of the opposition movement.

Mr Kasyanov blames the security services for the sting and you can hear more about his experiences in our full special video report.

That the authorities have taken an intense interest in the democratic opposition should come as no surprise.

The parliamentary elections will be seen as a dry run for the presidential race in 2018, when Mr Putin is expected to seek another term.


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