| In a practice not seen in Russia since Soviet times, the
Kremlin has put
forward its own men to run against Vladimir Putin in presidential elections
The move has proved necessary because Mr Putin, who has an estimated
80 per cent support, is so dominant, and his stranglehold on Russian
politics so tight, that leading opposition candidates have all refused
Fearful that the elections will be seen as undemocratic, or that turn-out
might fall below 50 per cent if the result is considered a foregone
conclusion, the Kremlin has persuaded a leading liberal and a host of
unknowns to join the race to try to spice it up.
Electoral authorities announced last week that 10 candidates, including
Putin, would now run. But analysts say that almost all registered on the
instructions of the Kremlin.
One candidate, Sergei Mironov, the Federation Council speaker,
inadvertently encapsulated the bizarre nature of this year's presidential
election by admitting that he supported Mr Putin.
Explaining his decision to run against Mr Putin, he said: "When
who is trusted goes into battle, he must not be left alone. One must stand
Among the other candidates are a former boxer, a magnate apparently
to escape prosecution, and an unknown reported to be a stooge for the
exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
The only even semi-serious alternative to Mr Putin is Irina Khakamada,
liberal of mixed Russian and Japanese descent. But she failed to be elected
to the Duma last time round and lacks even the backing of her own tiny
Since he was elected four years ago, Mr Putin has tightened the noose
Russia's free media and sought to crush opposition parties.
But the hard-line tactics have worked almost too well. In parliamentary
elections in December pro-Kremlin candidates won more than two-thirds
the seats in the new State Duma.
The results damaged Russia's image abroad where commentators mourned
end of a decade of vibrant, if flawed, post-Soviet democracy. Now the
Kremlin is apparently trying to make the presidential election less
But all the big-hitters have opted to stay out of the race.
Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran Communist leader who almost ousted Boris
Yeltsin in the 1990s, complained the contest was unfair.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist whose party scored highly
December elections and who almost always supports Mr Putin, appointed
bodyguard, a former boxer, to stand instead of him.
Grigory Yavlinsky, Russia's
most prominent liberal and the head of the Yabloko party, refused to appoint
a candidate at all, saying the elections are a sham. He lamented Russia's
return to what he called Soviet-style one-party rule and likened democracy
in Mr Putin's Russia to a Potemkin village.
He added: "I can hardly imagine that Mr Putin is going to have
with Mr Zhirinovsky's bodyguard."