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Russian: Presidential Elections Hold Little Suspense

  • Jeremy Bransten

Two days from now -- on Sunday, 14 March -- Russia will hold its fourth presidential election since the fall of communism. Five candidates are running against the incumbent President Vladimir Putin but none has managed to garner much popular support, leaving little doubt about the final outcome. Despite his 80 percent personal approval ratings, however, Putin's re-election bid isn't generating much excitement on the streets of Moscow.

Moscow, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Today marks the last day of campaigning before Sunday's polls open in Russia's presidential election.

It has been an odd sort of campaign, to say the least. From the very start, semi-opposition parties such as the Communists and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party appeared resigned to losing, nominating candidates with little appeal.

The leading candidate -- incumbent President Vladimir Putin -- has refused to take part in any televised debates with his opponents or to air any political commercials.

"The Duma will go about its business without us, as has always been the case. We already live in Brezhnev-like times; if not Stalinist times, then Brezhnev-like times."
That has left independent challengers, such as Irina Khakamada, free to campaign in earnest. But it's a bit like the old proverb about a tree falling in Siberia: if it falls and nobody notices, does it matter?

Khakamada, the only woman candidate, was announcing plans to form a new political party in the city of Nizhnii Novgorod yesterday, but her news conference got 30 seconds on the nightly television news.

By contrast, Putin's roundtable discussions with agricultural workers at the Kremlin received ample coverage on all the national television stations, as did his telephone condolence call to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar over the Madrid terror attacks. In addition, Putin delivered a special address to the nation -- carried in full -- on the importance of voting.

It is little wonder, then, that no one is taking bets on a possible Putin defeat. The only point of interest is voter turnout. According to the constitution, at least 50 percent of Russia's more than 100 million voters must cast a ballot for the election to be declared valid. That is why the authorities have used all the resources at their disposal to ensure a high turnout.

Pamphlets and posters urging Russians to vote have been plastered across the country. In Moscow, one radio station is offering tickets to a rock concert for first-time voters. In the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk, local mobile-phone operators have been ordered to send SMS messages to all their clients reminding them to vote. Several hospitals in the region even posted notices saying they would not admit patients who had not filled out absentee ballots.

But despite the authorities' best efforts, the general feeling -- at least on the streets of Moscow -- is distinctly unenthusiastic. Putin's appointment of a new prime minister and government just before the poll, far from firing up potential voters, has made his re-election even more of a foregone conclusion in people's minds. Their attitude to Sunday's election could best be summed up in two words: Why bother?

On Tverskaya, the Russian capital's main thoroughfare, where designer boutiques alternate with trendy Internet cafes, queuing up for sushi is in; lining up at the ballot box is passe. No one interviewed at random by RFE/RL professed great interest in the poll. Some, such as Marina -- a newly retired book editor -- did not hide her feelings of disappointment with the "non-campaign."

"I just don't know what our elections are about," she said. "I just don't know what they mean. We already have a president. We already have a government. The Duma will go about its business without us, as has always been the case. We already live in Brezhnev-like times; if not Stalinist times, then Brezhnev-like times."

Forty-five-year old Olga, a self-described IT manager, smokes a cigarette with a colleague outside her office. She scoffs when asked if she plans to vote on Sunday. The campaign has been boring and pointless, she says. But she also has a personal reason for staying home on voting day.

"Putin's going to be elected anyway so why go and vote for him? And there's nobody else. Who else is there to vote for? On top of it, my son is threatened with military service and if there were hopes for a professional army before Putin, now those hopes are gone. Not only has he strengthened the draft but he's also eliminated deferments for university students. So I am absolutely not going to vote for Putin or anyone else. It's just a waste of my time," she said.

Aleksei, a young freelance artist, also thinks going to the polls will be a waste of time. He says he once believed voting was his civic duty, but that now everything already seems to have been decided in advance. "No, I just won't go," he said. "I used to think it was important at least to vote for somebody. But now..."

There are, to be sure, Putin supporters to be found on the streets of Moscow. But no one offers a ringing endorsement of their chosen candidate. Masha and Irina will vote for Putin because he is a familiar face and because there is no one else. Better to back the winning side, they reason.

First woman: "[We'll vote] for Putin."
RFE/RL: "Why?"
Second Woman: "Why do we need someone else? If somebody else gets in, he'll think up something new. I don't know."
First Woman: "In any case, he's going to get a second term. I don't think that's a secret for anyone."

Economically, life for many Muscovites has improved during Putin's first term in office. Gross domestic product nationwide has risen by a third and the fruits of Russia's rebounding economy are even more apparent in the capital. Despite fears about terrorism and concerns about the ongoing war in Chechnya, most people are thankful for some stability in their lives after the chaos of the 1990s -- thankful to be able to concentrate on family and careers instead of politics.

Anatolii Kostyukov, political commentator for the newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta," told RFE/RL the arrangement suits the Kremlin. The Russian president and his advisers have no real fears that voter participation on Sunday will dip below 50 percent, he says. But with Putin consistently registering 80 percent approval ratings, his aides would like a high turnout to match -- as a sort of cherry on the cake. Judging by the reactions of Muscovites, they may not get it. But as Kostyukov noted, it will not really matter anyway. "The Kremlin would like a very large voter turnout in order to have a special feeling of moral satisfaction," he said. "But it doesn't really have any practical significance."

Some 95,000 polling stations will be open across Russia's 11 times zones on 14 March. Approximately 110 million voters are eligible to cast ballots. The last polls will close in the westernmost territory of Kaliningrad at 8 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Prague time). Preliminary results are expected to be tallied within hours.

The five candidates opposing Vladimir Putin are Communist Nikolai Kharitonov, Liberal Democratic Party candidate Oleg Malyshkin, Federation Council Chairman Oleg Mironov, self-nominated Motherland Party member Sergei Glazev, and self-nominated Union of Rightist Forces party member Irina Khakamada.

Discredited candidate Ivan Rybkin, backed by self-exiled financier Boris Berezovskii, recently withdrew from the race.