Putin’s would-be challenger denies link to former oil boss Khodorkovsky

(Reuters) – Yekaterina Duntsova, who is seeking to run against Vladimir Putin in Russia’s next presidential election, denied on Thursday that she was backed by a former oil boss who runs an opposition movement from abroad.

Reporting on Duntsova’s formal bid to enter the race on Wednesday, the state news agency RIA described her as “supported and financed by fugitive oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (foreign agent)”.

“Foreign agent” is a tag applied by Russian authorities to activists and opposition figures they consider to be engaged in harmful political activity financed from outside the country.

Khodorkovsky was the billionaire head of oil firm Yukos but fell foul of Putin and spent 10 years in jail on fraud charges, which he denied, before being released in 2013.

He is now based in London and leads an opposition alliance called Open Russia. Representatives for Khodorkovsky could not immediately be reached for comment.

The wording used by RIA was a first indication of the obstacles Duntsova will face in obtaining balanced, let alone favourable, coverage of her long-shot presidential bid from state media loyal to the Kremlin.

In an interview on Thursday with an opposition YouTube channel, “Chestnoye Slovo” (Honest Word), the former TV journalist said RIA’s description was an invention.

She said she had “no direct link” to Khodorkovsky. The allegation may have been based, she said, on the fact that her candidacy was supported by Anastasia Burakova, the head of a project called Kovcheg (The Ark) that Khodorkovsky founded to support people who have fled Russia because they oppose the war in Ukraine. Burakova was designated a “foreign agent” soon after Duntsova announced she wanted to run against Putin.

In the interview, Duntsova avoided criticising Putin directly. But she said there was a certain “stagnation” in Russia after 24 years of his rule.

“Prices are rising in an extraordinary fashion practically every day,” she said. “The stability they tell us about doesn’t altogether correspond to reality.”

Duntsova has called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine and the release of political prisoners including Alexei Navalny, the foremost public critic of Putin still in Russia. She also said she would seek to repeal the law on “foreign agents”.

The Kremlin denies interfering in the justice system, which has imprisoned numerous opposition figures, especially in the 21 months since sending its forces into Ukraine, on charges ranging from knowingly discrediting Russia’s armed forces to fraud and treason.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)