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Transitions Online, 13 January 2004

Russia: A President without Rivals

By Sergei Borisov

ULYANOVSK, Russia--It is possible to be too successful a politician, Russia's President Vladimir Putin is discovering.

His ratings are unassailable. A ROMIR Monitoring poll in the last days of 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 some degree, Putin is clearly the man most people believe will boost Russia's fortunes.

Most Russians have never doubted that Putin will be re-elected on 14 March. And after the overwhelming victory of the pro-Putin United Russia Party in 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 more 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 since the campaign for the presidency officially began on 11 December, 10 challengers to the president have emerged.


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 in 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 of the agrarian lobby in the last Duma. (Although newspaper reports have suggested that he, too, was reluctant to run.)

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 thanks to his inflammatory words and short, pugnacious temper. His voting record in the last Duma, though, tells 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 of the president.

But Zhirinovsky can still play unexpected cards, and his extremist party, misleadingly named the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), will throw their weight behind Zhirinovsky's former bodyguard, Oleg Malyshkin.

Malyshkin, a one-time boxer, is familiar to television viewers for his role in a scuffle during a televised debate ahead of the Duma elections. But his 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 Malyshkin.

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: "I can hardly imagine that Mr Putin is going to have a debate with the bodyguard of Mr Zhirinovsky."


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 history.

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 weeding 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 a large field of rivals in order to polish the appearance of democracy in Russia. The CEC's decision either flies in the face of this view or will prove the exception.

Still, some of the nine remaining "challengers" to Putin have already lent credence to the notion that a "crowd scene" is being created. Sergei 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 into fighting, he must not be left alone, one should stand along with him." Mironov's colleague, Nikolai Levichev, put 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 who are standing for office merely to create a semblance of competition.

The surprise packet of the Duma elections--the Motherland bloc--has produced 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 for 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, will 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.


There are, however, several candidates who could stand out from the crowd. 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 in the Union of Right Forces (SPS). Her candidacy apparently surprised other SPS 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 an independent, believes that a political party should nominate its own candidate despite certain defeat. There must a candidate in the opposition "to personally challenge Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," Khakamada has said.

Others, though, think Khakamada is playing into the Kremlin's hands. Vladimir Pribylovsky, of the Panorama think tank, told the Moscow Times that Khakamada "is one of the few decent figures taking part in this race, and the Kremlin is interested in 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 be 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 boycott of the vote.

The reaction by the head of the Central Election Committee, Aleksander Veshnyakov, has hardly dispelled doubts about democracy. He has warned that 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 the vote."


See also:

Presidential elections 2004

Transitions Online, 13 January 2004

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