Dmitry Medvedev has faced little public criticism as he coasts toward Russia's presidency. But a fringe extremist group has come up with a reason to vote against him Sunday: claims that he might have Jewish roots.
The group's bid to tap into Russian anti-Semitism is attracting attention but not many backers, and even other nationalist groups are distancing themselves from it.
The president-in-waiting, a first deputy prime minister who enjoys the support of popular outgoing leader Vladimir Putin, isn't saying outright either way whether or not anyone in his family was Jewish. Medvedev met with Jewish leaders in Russia during Hanukkah and has said the government must stamp out anti-Semitic propaganda.
Nikolai Bondarik, who heads a marginal group that calls itself the Russian Party, says Medvedev's mother is Jewish, citing what he calls her Jewish maiden name, Shaposhnikova, and unnamed friends of hers. He offers no solid proof, but says voters should be informed.
"It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism," he said by telephone Wednesday from St. Petersburg. "I just think Russia's president should be Russian."
Russian nationalists have persecuted Jews for centuries, from pogroms that saw entire Jewish villages decimated, to systemic discrimination that pushed many to flee the Soviet Union, to occasional but persistent attacks on Jews and Jewish gravestones or other sites in recent years.
In a recent magazine interview, Medvedev talked of his mother's forebears in provincial western Russia. He gave their names and professions _ one sewed hats, another was a blacksmith _ but said nothing about their ethnic or religious background. His mother's family name could be Jewish or ethnic Russian.
He described choosing to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church at age 23, in the still formally atheist Soviet Union.
Russia's Federation of Jewish Communities shrugged off what spokesman Borukh Gorin called the "attempt to play the Jewish card." He said that despite continued anti-Semitism in Russia, the claims were not denting widespread support for Medvedev, who is expected to beat three other candidates handily in Sunday's election.
Bondarik's claims generated excited slurs on virulent nationalist Web sites, though they have made no appearance in the mainstream, state-controlled media that most Russians rely on for information.
Larger Russian nationalist movements including the National Bolshevik Party, apparently wary of incurring charges of violating extremism laws, said they refused to take part in a joint march with Bondarik in St. Petersburg last weekend.
"This anti-Semitic 'brand' that he tried to put forward didn't find any support," said Alexander Belov of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, a well-known group whose Web site is rife with xenophobic commentary. "He looks like a clown."
Some commentators have suggested the rumors were started by the Kremlin itself to make Medvedev look tolerant; others think his enemies in the administration could have started it because they see him as too friendly with the West. Bondarik denies any Kremlin backing.
Russian nationalists have long equated Jews with Western influences viewed as dangerous.
Medvedev's campaign team said it hasn't investigated his family tree. Aides pointed to statements from Medvedev himself, in which he says the government should fight against xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda.
Rumors have circulated in the past that Putin and other Russian leaders also had Jewish roots, with little effect.
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky noted that if voters are turned off by Medvedev's mother's maiden name, they could always vote for candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a flamboyant ultranationalist once openly anti-Semitic _ until he revealed that his father was Jewish.
Associated Press writer Mike Eckel contributed to this report.