| ULYANOVSK, Russia--It is possible to be too successful
Russia's President Vladimir Putin is discovering.
His ratings are unassailable. A ROMIR Monitoring poll in the last days
2003 showed that many Russians think Putin has more work to do--46 percent
believe he has not succeeded in
bringing order to Russia--but with 82 percent saying they trust him to
degree, Putin is clearly the man most people believe will boost Russia's
Most Russians have never doubted that Putin will be re-elected on 14
And after the overwhelming victory of the pro-Putin United Russia Party
the parliamentary elections on
7 December, their conviction turned into a certainty. Indeed, Putin's
victory now seems so assured that the president's staff is reportedly
concerned that turnout will be lower than
the 50 percent needed for the election to be legitimate.
The danger is substantial: just 55 percent of the electorate voted in
December's Duma elections. So the Kremlin may be relieved to see that
the campaign for the presidency
officially began on 11 December, 10 challengers to the president have
Somewhat surprisingly, a few familiar names will not be on the ballot.
Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, has run for the presidency
three times but will not this time.
Zyuganov's decision may have had something to do with the party's debacle
December, when its support was halved. The 12.5 percent of the electorate
who voted for the
Communists, though, will have a candidate: Nikolai Kharitonov, leader
agrarian lobby in the last Duma. (Although newspaper reports have suggested
that he, too, was reluctant
Zyuganov dubbed the Duma elections a "farce," and Grigory
Yavlinsky, head of the Yabloko party--which failed even to enter parliament--has
a similar view about the presidential elections. Without an independent
legal system and influential independent media, Yavlinksky said, he believes
there are no "rules of the game" and that it would be pointless
to mount a campaign.
Nor will Vladimir Zhirinovsky be running. Long seen as the leading maverick
on the Russian political stage, Zhirinovsky has earned his reputation
to his inflammatory words and
short, pugnacious temper. His voting record in the last Duma, though,
a different story: in the last Duma, he voted for Putin's proposals almost
without exception. Observers
believe he has decided not to break the pattern by being openly critical
But Zhirinovsky can still play unexpected cards, and his extremist party,
misleadingly named the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), will
their weight behind Zhirinovsky's
former bodyguard, Oleg Malyshkin.
Malyshkin, a one-time boxer, is familiar to television viewers for his
in a scuffle during a televised debate ahead of the Duma elections. But
verbal skills are less assured, and
Zhirinovsky, in his role as Malyshkin's press secretary and PR man, has
already begun to voice the "thoughts" of the taciturn and uncertain
This has only fueled the view that Malyshkin's role is to say everything
that Zhirinovsky wants to tell Putin, but is afraid to say directly.
Of Malyshkin's bid for presidential glory, Yavlinsky has commented:
hardly imagine that Mr Putin is going to have a debate with the bodyguard
A "CROWD SCENE"
The questions about the quality of Russian democracy go beyond the vocal
skills of Malyshkin and the absence of some of the most prominent political
figures in recent Russian
One candidate has already been ruled out by the Central Election Committee
(CEC): coffin-manufacturing magnate German Sterligov. The lack of a notary's
stamp on Sterligov's
nomination papers proved enough to kill his dreams, with the Supreme Court
confirming the CEC's decision.
In the Duma elections, critics argued that the CEC was deliberately
out candidates by finding technical reasons for excluding them.
This time, articles in the newspapers refer to a "crowd scene"--the
preferred metaphor used to reflect the Kremlin's perceived desire to have
large field of rivals in order to polish the
appearance of democracy in Russia. The CEC's decision either flies in
face of this view or will prove the exception.
Still, some of the nine remaining "challengers" to Putin have
credence to the notion that a "crowd scene" is being created.
Mironov, the candidate for the Party of
Life and head of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament,
has declared that "when a leader in whom people trust (Putin) goes
fighting, he must not be left alone,
one should stand along with him." Mironov's colleague, Nikolai Levichev,
it another way: the party, which did not make it into the Duma, was
nominating Mironov "to strengthen
the democratic basis of [Putin's] course," he said.
Two businessmen, Anzori Aksentyev-Kikalishvili and Vladimir Bryntsalov--the
latter made millions on pharmaceuticals--are also seen as role players
are standing for office merely
to create a semblance of competition.
The surprise packet of the Duma elections--the Motherland bloc--has
another surprise, by fielding two candidates. Neither, though, has the
bloc's direct support.
Motherland's leader, Sergei Glaziev, will be standing as an independent,
while Viktor Gerashchenko, former governor of the central bank, will run
Russian Regions Party, one of the
members of the Motherland bloc. Glaziev, as an independent, and
Gerashchenko, as representative of a party not formally in parliament,
both have to collect two million signatures
in support. In a move designed to ensure that the candidacies have
broad-based support, candidates can only recruit a maximum of 50,000 signers
from each Russian region.
Putin, who will be standing as an independent, will have to do the same.
STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD
There are, however, several candidates who could stand out from the
One is Ivan Rybkin, a former chairman of the Security Council under
President Boris Yeltsin and speaker of
the Duma, and now a leader of Liberal Russia Party. The party's sponsor,
Boris Berezovsky, has already promised to fund Rybkin's campaign.
Berezovsky, who now lives in political
exile in Britain, is sharply critical of Putin, and took out full-page
advertisements attacking Putin in the U.S. press during Putin's trip to
Washington in autumn 2003. Rybkin is likely to be
similarly critical of the president.
Another critic could be Irina Khakamada, one of the leading figures
Union of Right Forces (SPS). Her candidacy apparently surprised other
leaders. After failing to get into
parliament, the SPS had unsuccessfully tried to agree on a joint candidate
with Yabloko. A flamboyant democrat, Khakamada, who will be standing as
independent, believes that a
political party should nominate its own candidate despite certain defeat.
There must a candidate in the opposition "to personally challenge
Vladimirovich Putin," Khakamada
Others, though, think Khakamada is playing into the Kremlin's hands.
Vladimir Pribylovsky, of the Panorama think tank, told the Moscow Times
Khakamada "is one of the few
decent figures taking part in this race, and the Kremlin is interested
having someone like her challenging Putin."
Yavlinsky has said that Khakamada's candidacy could help the Kremlin
"legitimize the presidential election."
Other prominent public figures share Yavlinsky's view that it would
better not to stand. Well-known human rights activist Sergei Kovalev has
called for a boycott, saying that "one
should not give Putin a chance to create a semblance of electoral
competition, of having any rivals."
A new web site, boykot.ru, has even sprung up to that campaign for a
of the vote.
The reaction by the head of the Central Election Committee, Aleksander
Veshnyakov, has hardly dispelled doubts about democracy. He has warned
those who call for a boycott
could be prosecuted under a legal clause that says no one should be allowed
to prevent other citizens from voting.
Putin himself has condemned the idea of an election boycott as a "foolish
and harmful plan because it could disrupt normal life in the country,
politically and economically."
It was a statement probably made with half an eye on the potential turnout
on 14 March. There are some, though, who aren't worried. Sergei Markov,
director of the Political Studies
Institute, predicted in the daily Trud on 30 December 2003 that, "Putin
[will] win in the first round. I do not think any of the other election
participants will get more than 10 percent of