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Russia: Putin Lacks Strong Opponent

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian interim President Vladimir Putin officially launched his presidential campaign last week -- but he has no powerful opponent to campaign against. Politicians are rushing to back a winner, and only a few voices are raised in dissent. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that some commentators fear an opposition will be manufactured, so that Putin's win will not be seen as too easy.

Moscow, 17 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Everybody loves a winner. Like gamblers who've been given a solid tip, Russian politicians are falling over themselves to declare allegiance to the popular acting president, Vladimir Putin. The incumbent is widely seen as a sure thing in the March 26 presidential election.

There is very little resistance to Putin, and the few dissenters seem weak and without influence. Some observers wonder whether even the critics are not actually playing to the advantage of a Kremlin system intent on keeping up democratic appearances.

The main opposition force is the Communists, and they have only about 15 percent support. Other candidates, such as ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, seem to have ruled out the possibility that they might win.

The loudest opposition voice so far is that of Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, who says he is considering running against Putin. Titov told Interfax that the presidential election does not look like a race in a democracy, and that Putin could emerge as a virtual dictator. He elaborated on that theme in an interview with Radio Liberty's Russian Service.

"I don't have the slightest doubt that these are pseudo-democratic, totalitarian elections. Today we are organizing elections of the communist regime. The candidate has been [officially] introduced and he carries the high title of successor. He received the relay baton. Now we just have to come to the polling stations and vote. There are no alternative democratic candidates in these elections. Everyone understands that we are in the same situation as in 1996. [We must choose] either Putin, who is an unknown but apparently a democrat, or Zyuganov and a return to the communist past. They are putting us in the position of 1996 -- on purpose."

Some Russian media interpreted Titov's outburst not as a genuine expression of democratic indignation, but rather as a sign that Titov was being put forward to play the role of opponent. Titov is one of the founders of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) movement, whose other leading figures are enthusiastic supporters of Putin. The daily "Segodnya" quoted unnamed sources as saying that Titov was being created as a phony alternative to Putin. And the newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" recalled the 1991 presidential election, when an obscure deputy ran against Boris Yeltsin to create the illusion of pluralism.

Some Russian political scientists, too, are warning that Russia's political system is developing some authoritarian features. Mikhail Delyagin of the Institute for Globalization Problems warns that the lack of a viable opposition to Putin gives the Kremlin unchecked power.

Speaking to our correspondent, Delyagin outlined an alarmist scenario, saying that if the economy worsens, Putin could resort to dictatorial methods to maintain order. "The combination of informational, financial and forceful methods makes it possible to crush any opposition. It is most likely that the Duma will turn into an echo of the Soviet Union's Supreme Soviet. At the same time [Putin] is facing very colossal, grave economic problems which, if they stay unsolved, can bring on the collapse of Russia. He can't solve these problems because right now he is leaning on two clans, [Boris] Berezovsky's and [Anatoly] Chubais's. Both clans demonstrated quite convincingly during their domination that they were not capable of solving Russia's deep problems. When we are in the presence of an authority incapable of solving essential, urgent economic issues, we are in a situation that incites the state to revert to terror."

But other political commentators say that is going too far. Former presidential adviser Georgy Satarov is head of the Indem think-tank. He said on NTV ("Itogi") Sunday that the process of election alone will give Putin sufficient legitimacy. In Satarov's words: "It's not Putin's fault that there isn't a strong alternative [candidate]. It's just a characteristic of the phase of democracy we are now going through."

Newspapers and television stations backed Putin uncritically while he was prime minister. Now that he is interim president, however, they are toning down their support for the policy he is most closely connected with -- the war in Chechnya.

Last week, NTV's popular news program "Sevodniachko" reported that the authorities are harassing Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky for his critical coverage of the Russian military's action in Chechnya. Photos that Babitsky took of dead Russian soldiers were confiscated by the police at the film shop where his wife had brought them to be developed.

In a poll released today by the independent research center ROMIR, three-fourths of Russians surveyed said they had a positive attitude toward Putin. But 11.5 percent said they feared that Boris Yeltsin's resignation and appointment of Putin as acting president could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian regime.