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Russia: Zhirinovsky's Return To Race Seen As Good For Putin

  • Sophie Lambroschini

A Supreme Court decision Monday brought Vladimir Zhirinovsky back into Russia's presidential race, one month after the nationalist party leader was barred from running. Zhirinovsky is not expected to get more than 5 percent of the vote, but Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that allowing him to run could benefit the Kremlin by generating some small interest in this lackluster campaign.

Moscow, 7 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Trotting back out onto the electoral field, Vladimir Zhirinovsky regains his former political role as a useful, tame competitor for the Kremlin.

That is how Russian media see the Supreme Court decision Monday to overturn several lesser court decisions and allow Zhirinovsky back to compete in the March 26 presidential election. The leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia had been barred from running last month by the Central Electoral Commission, which was applying a strict new election law.

Under the new law, candidates must declare not only their own income and property, but also that of their spouses and adult children. Zhirinovsky, the commission found, had failed to register an apartment belonging to his son. The two-room flat was worth less than 1 percent of the Zhirinovsky family's fortune in real estate. But that omission was enough to disqualify the candidate.

Zhirinovsky had had trouble with the Central Electoral Commission ahead of December's parliamentary elections, when his party was barred from running because its candidates had too many income disclosure violations. At that time, as now, he ultimately won that battle in the Supreme Court.

When the decision was read out on Monday, Zhirinovsky was ecstatic:

In the context of this particularly listless presidential campaign, in which acting President Vladimir Putin is heavily favored, Zhirinovsky's reappearance ranks as a major event. Zhirinovsky's presence in the race is expected to pull a few votes away from Putin -- but as Zhirinovsky's popularity stands at a paltry 5 percent compared with Putin's 45 percent, the Liberal Democratic leader will probably not influence the outcome.

Still, his presence could have the indirect effect of re-invigorating the campaign. More than half the registered voters must vote if the election is to be valid, and some analysts have been warning that turnout on March 26 may be too low. They argue that Putin's lead is so great that many voters see the outcome as a foregone conclusion and do not consider their vote important.

Leonid Sedov, an analyst with the Russian Center for Public Opinion Study (VTSIOM), says that polls have been predicting lower turnouts as election day draws nearer, decreasing from 60 percent to about 54 percent. Sedov says Zhirinovsky's presence could attract renewed attention to the race. And Russian television (NTV) implied the court decision was made specifically to benefit Putin, pointing out that there's nothing better than a scandal to get people to vote.

But in addition to providing potential for renewed interest, the court decision benefits Putin in another way. Putin, like Zhirinovsky, is suspected of having property in his family that he did not declare -- a run-down house belonging to his wife.

Putin's spokesmen have said the disclosure law does not apply to that particular property, because, they argue, a house does not have to be declared if the construction on it is not finished. But Russian media had been treating the issue as a potential problem for Putin.

If that were true, the Supreme Court's decision could create a precedent that would exonerate Putin and others.

Aman Tuleyev, another candidate suspected of having undisclosed property, did not hide his relief at the court decision. He said that now his problem with an undeclared apartment "is not worth an egg."

But the presidential race might be in for another unexpected twist. Aleksandr Veshnyakov, the president of the Central Electoral Commission, said that the commission might mount a challenge to the Supreme Court's decision.