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Russia: The Making Of A President

  • Robert Coalson --> Dmitry Medvedev in Svetly, Kaliningrad Oblast, during one of his recent regional visits (epa) Even as the Russian Foreign Ministry was condemning the January 5 presidential election in Georgia for alleged violations, the president-making machine in Moscow was swinging into action.

The ministry's complaints about Georgia -- that the vote saw "the widespread use of administrative resources, blatant pressure on the opposition candidates, and stringent restriction of access to financial and media resources" -- pretty much sum up the Kremlin's strategy for installing First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the successor to Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin's task in this case is easy. Polls show Medvedev already has the support of more than half of all voters and more than 70 percent of decided voters. In second place with some 13 percent of the vote, according to the Levada Center, is Putin himself, although he is not eligible to seek another term. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky are languishing with 5-7 percent, while former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov registers 1 percent or less.

Medvedev's campaign -- headed by Kremlin political guru and deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov -- has begun to activate regional administrations in support of its aims. More than 60 regional leaders who agreed to head up the local party lists of the Unified Russia party before the December Duma elections are now being pressed to head the local Medvedev campaigns as well.

Securing Officials' Support

It is a clear fusion of administrative muscle and political ambition, and illustrates exactly why this vertical of power -- in which governors are directly dependent on the Kremlin -- was created in the first place. As RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on January 11, the purpose of Medvedev's recent trips to the regions -- he has made widely covered visits to Murmansk and Kaliningrad in recent days -- is not to meet with voters but to establish working relations with local officials. In addition to the normal task of creating a plausible scenario to arrive at a predetermined percentage of the vote for Medvedev, governors will also have the more difficult task of persuading voters that the so-called national projects -- sweeping reforms in the areas of housing, health care, education, and agriculture that Medvedev has overseen -- have brought them benefits on the ground.

The yoking of the country's administrative resources to the goals of Unified Russia proved powerfully effective in December. In Ingushetia, for instance, the local administration claimed that 98.35 percent of voters turned out in December, and 98.72 percent of them voted for Unified Russia. In the face of these unrealistic figures, local activists began collecting statements from voters who swore that they did not go to the polls at all. Last week, the movement announced it had collected such statements from more than 87,000 voters, about 54 percent of the republic's entire electorate. The activists have said that if prosecutors refuse to investigate, they will take their complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Although the likely levels of falsification in the North Caucasus -- in war-torn Chechnya, 99 percent of voters came out, according to official figures, and 99.36 percent of them voted for Unified Russia -- are colorfully extravagant, the pro-Kremlin forces benefited from administrative resources across the country. In the Duma elections, opposition party events were thwarted, election materials were impounded, demonstrations were banned, opposition candidates' access to voters was restricted, and media support was as intensely biased toward the pro-Kremlin parties on the local level as on the national. As political analyst Sergei Markov told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "you can't have too many political resources."

Meanwhile, the two candidates trying to make the ballot without the support of a party represented in the Duma -- Kasyanov and Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov -- have been beavering away at the task of collecting the 2 million signatures required of such self-starters. Although the Democratic Party, usually seen as a Kremlin-backed pseudo-opposition group, picked up fewer than 90,000 votes in the Duma ballot, Bogdanov supporters claim they have already reached the 2 million goal. Kasyanov, on the other hand, is running up hard against the January 16 deadline. INDEM think tank analyst Yury Korgunyuk told "Vedomosti" that he thinks Kasyanov's chances of getting his signatures approved by the Central Election Commission are practically zero.

Kremlin Machinations

Bogdanov recently told "Moskovsky komsomolets" that one Kremlin tactic is to pay off or infiltrate the companies that are hired by opposition campaigns to organize the collection of signatures. They submit a certain percentage of bad signatures that the commission has no trouble finding. Of course, such machinations are impossible to prove, but it is not hard to imagine that such consulting firms could see considerable benefits from being more loyal to the Kremlin political machine than to minor candidates who have no political future.

What is easy to prove is that the Kremlin-controlled media machine is already grinding away. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote this week that the central television channels are already giving "complete supremacy" to Medvedev, and have succeeded in marginalizing the other candidates. The paper said the main channels mentioned Medvedev 344 times in the two weeks ending on January 13, while Zhirinovsky came in second with 96 references. While Medvedev received 12 full hours of coverage in the period, Kasyanov's voice was heard on state television only twice during the two-week period, as opposed to Medvedev's 172 times.

On January 26, the Central Election Commission will certify the final list of candidates and all indications are they will be Medvedev, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, and -- for spice -- Bogdanov. The campaign begins on February 2 and voting will be March 2. But Medvedev already won the election on December 10, with 100 percent of Putin's vote.

RFE/RL Russia Report

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to