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Newsweek International, January 26, 2004

Pulling for Putin
Russia's upcoming presidential election is no contest

By Christian Caryl and Frank Brown

In most countries, presidential candidates tend to have the same concerns. How to formulate a program, raise money, get the voters' attention. But Vladimir Bryntsalov, a millionaire businessman, has something else on his mind. Campaigning for the job occupied by Vladimir Putin, he wants to make sure that his "rival" doesn't take him too seriously. "I'm not going to criticize Putin and praise myself," says Bryntsalov. "The country is on the right track."

So why is he running? Mainly to air his own views, even if they're largely identical to Putin's. About one thing he's perfectly clear: "Only Putin can be president." Once Bryntsalov has collected the obligatory 2 million signatures needed to register his candidacy, he might drop out of the race altogether. "What's the point of wasting [the government's] money," he points out, "taking free television time and just repeating what Putin is saying?"

Confused? Don't be. It's all part of another ignominious low to which Russian democracy has sunk of late. These days Putin towers over the political landscape so commandingly that the main challenge his aides face is ensuring that the upcoming presidential vote on March 14 doesn't look as if it's taking place in North Korea. The problem has been particularly acute since December, when political parties allied with Putin swept the board in parliamentary elections. As a result of that rout, some of Russia's once assertive politicians have opted out of the contest altogether. Political insiders say the Kremlin worries that an uncontested election could cast doubts on Putin's claim to be a democratic leader-and rob him of political cover for potentially unpalatable economic reforms.

Thus, some of his allies are trying to do him a favor by running against him. In previous years both communists and pro-market liberals managed to do respectably in the presidential balloting. This time around the communists have opted for a strategy of passive-aggressiveness, nominating a second-tier candidate from an allied party as their candidate, while the two main liberal parties are boycotting the election altogether. Most of the contenders who are left-ranging from the bullet-headed bodyguard of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky to a former central-bank chief known by the nickname "Mr. Inflation"-seem to be motivated primarily by their eagerness to please the incumbent. "[The candidates] don't want to become president," says Georgy Satarov, a former aide to Boris Yeltsin. "They want to take part in the presidential election. In Russia, these are different things." Most, he says, are trying to generate official good will by conducting allegedly independent but actually tame campaigns.

One such, Sergei Glazyev, is a former communist who now belongs to the nationalist Motherland party-widely regarded as a Kremlin stalking-horse designed to undermine support for the "patriotic left," i.e., the archrival communists. After last month's parliamentary elections, Motherland hurried to join the pro-Putin bloc in the Duma. Small wonder, then, that Glazyev has spent most of his campaign so far evading questions about the policy differences between himself and the president. By the same token, Oleg Malyshkin, the Zhirinovsky bodyguard, says his candidacy is a feature of his party's "constructive opposition" to the Kremlin-though when asked about the details, he's hard-pressed to say what he and his colleagues oppose, and in practice Zhirinovsky's party almost always votes with the government. Another candidate, Sergei Mironov, is a friend of Putin's who hails from the president's hometown of St. Petersburg and has never left any doubt where his loyalties lie. "When a trusted leader goes into battle, he must not be left alone," Mironov announced at the beginning of his campaign. "One must stand beside him"-adding that he himself would be voting for Putin.

Happily, Russia remains a somewhat unpredictable place, and onlookers were startled last week when one of the contenders suddenly started behaving like a real candidate. Irina Khakamada had already announced her decision to throw her hat into the ring despite a resolution by her liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, to refuse participation. That immediately spawned speculation that she, too, had been co-opted by Putin and his cronies-accusations she denies. "My challenge to Putin and his system of power is not a deal with the Kremlin," she says. She backed up those words with a searing indictment of Putin's handling of the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater in October 2002, saying that he ordered the storming of the theater despite indications that the Chechen hostage takers wanted to negotiate (130 hostages died in the rescue attempt). Even more dramatically, she called for an investigation of an earlier string of terrorist attacks that helped propel Putin into power in 1999. (Some members of the liberal opposition have alleged that the security services might have been behind the attacks, rather than the Chechen terrorists the Kremlin fingered.) And Khakamada's defenders point out that most of the media-and particularly Russia's two state-controlled TV networks-completely ignored the press conference where she aired the allegations.

Khakamada's sally has inspired other critics to say that she may have sold out, not to the Kremlin but to exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who has used similar arguments to attack Putin. Still, there's no denying that some of the things she's saying sound almost like the basis for a genuine campaign: "My main question would be, does Putin take personal responsibility? Is he ready to answer for all that is happening in the country? For terrorist acts. For an ineffective government. For the lack of a free press. For the fact that people, without rights, are manipulated by the state." Yet it's not at all clear that Khakamada will get the chance to make her run at the big prize. She has yet to acquire the 2 million signatures she needs to register as a candidate. Ironically, if she succeeds many Russians will simply take that as proof that she has friends at the top.

All this tragicomic wrangling over the presidential nonelection obscures a deeper problem. "There are no elections in Russia anymore, period," contends liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, whose Yabloko party is boycotting the poll. "Over the past four years Putin has destroyed all the autonomous elements in Russian society." The day the liberal leader spoke, the pro-Putin United Russia party, the landslide winner of the parliamentary elections, took for itself the chairmanships of every single committee in the Duma, leading Yavlinsky to speak of a "new one-party system." No doubt Bryntsalov & Co. would call it democracy in action.

With Helen Womack


See also:

Presidential elections 2004

Newsweek International, January 26, 2004

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