This week, nine potential candidates fulfilled initial conditions to run against the main contender in Russia's presidential election on 14 March -- incumbent President Vladimir Putin. With traditional opposition figures bailing out, the selection of relatively weak politicians reflects the political context of the ballot. It takes place just three months after opposition parties were almost obliterated in parliamentary elections, and at a time when the Kremlin's hold over public life is on the rise.
Moscow, 8 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ten candidates have met Russia's 6 January deadline for fulfilling initial registration procedures to stand in March's presidential elections.
There is the incumbent, Putin. And then there is everyone else.
While previous ballots held out the promise of some suspense, however meager, the outcome of this year's contest has long been considered a foregone conclusion. None of the country's main opposition parties are fronting a candidate. Putin's nine challengers are a motley assortment of candidates with little political weight.
The 14 March vote comes three months after parliamentary elections that ousted the Communists from their traditional role as strong opposition-vote candidates. Democratic parties like Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) failed to even overcome the 5 percent hurdle needed to earn a parliamentary seat.
Those elections left the opposition soured on the political process, with few eager to take on what is almost universally expected to be a doomed effort to unseat Russia's popular president.
In fact, until late December, almost no one had registered. The opposition was threatening to boycott the vote -- a move that put Putin in serious risk of facing a lineup of politically unseemly characters like Vladimir Zhirinovskii, a loud-mouthed cartoon hero and the girlie pop duo Tatu, whose managers clearly thought the waning lesbian-Lolita act could profit from some well-timed publicity.
Then, suddenly, seemingly legitimate candidates appeared -- a development that many observers say was orchestrated by the Kremlin.
Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies think tank, says the current tableau reflects the decline of Russia's political institutions.
"[December] parliamentary elections marked the crash of Russia's political party system of the 1990s. In these presidential elections, we're probably seeing the lowest point in this crisis of the political party system, and that's why the picture around the presidential candidates is so ambiguous," Makarenko said.
Irina Khakamada, a pro-market democrat -- and the only female candidate -- was one of the last to register. She registered as an independent rather than with the SPS, of which she is a leader. She told RFE/RL why she decided to join the race.
"After the left decided to take part in the elections [with Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov], I decided that our voice would not be heard unless we have a candidate. I understood that the election campaign would happen after all -- that it would not be just a battle between [Vladimir] Zhirinovskii's [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)] and Putin. These elections will be an imitation [of real elections], but they will be powerful, so it's important to play one's part until the end and take some responsibility. And I am assuming that responsibility," Khakamada said.
Putin is not only expected to win this year's election, but improve on his 2000 first-round victory over Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov. Putin took 53 percent of the vote in that election; Zyuganov took 29.
This year, Zyuganov has opted to forgo the race and has left his party's candidacy to Agrarian Party leader Nikolai Kharitonov, a second-rank politician with little charisma. Kharitonov's bid has been dubbed a farce by other politicians, who argue that if the Communists had intended to make a true effort to challenge Putin they would have chosen a more meaningful candidate.
Evergreen politician Zhirinovskii has likewise stayed out of this year's race. Instead, the LDPR candidate will be the party's little-known head of security, Oleg Malyshkin. Other half-hearted candidates include pro-Putin Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov. Critics have said candidates like Mironov are there only to lend an air of legitimacy to the proceedings should other parties eventually back out. But Mironov insists he has a political agenda as well.
"The presidential course is the right one. But the way it is being implemented, especially by the government -- which is, by the way, a government of the president -- should be considerably corrected," Mironov said.
Other candidates include economist Sergei Glazev and former Central Bank head Viktor Gerashchenko -- both candidates of the Motherland bloc that emerged from relative obscurity to win more than 40 seats in the December 2003 parliamentary elections. Both are generally supportive of the Kremlin, though their economic policies are more left-leaning. Motherland politicians support Glazev and Gerashchenko's decision to run by echoing Mironov's logic -- they support Putin, but the government needs help.
One candidate who is sure to annoy the Kremlin establishment is Ivan Rybkin, a former Duma speaker fielded by the Kremlin's arch-enemy, exiled oligarch Boris Berezovskii.
Rybkin says he decided to run in order to "get the word out about what [Putin's] reforms really mean."
"I don't know how they find that there's been 7 percent [economic] growth [in Russia]. More than half of our companies are making losses; in the housing sector, two-thirds are making losses. And all this is in the four and a half years of Putin's administration," Rybkin said.
Rybkin, like all candidates who are not backed by a party represented in the Duma, still has to collect 2 million signatures spread over 89 regions -- a logistically complicated and costly affair.
The most original bid comes from controversial businessman Anzori Aksentev-Kikalishvili, who the press has speculated heads the organized crime group with reputed ties to the Lithuanian presidency. Also running is pharmaceuticals and vodka king Vladimir Bryntsalov -- a 1996 presidential hopeful who opened the doors of his opulent mansion to the media, showing off his gold faucets and hunting dogs.
Only Yabloko has stuck by the boycott. For now, party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii says he refuses to participate in a ballot whose "fairness" is heavily compromised.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service election expert Mikhail Sokolov contributed to this report.)