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Russia: Voters Choosing A President

Voters in Russia go to the polls today to elect a president. Incumbent Vladimir Putin is widely favored to win a second term in office in a race against five other candidates. With none of Putin's challengers given any chance to unseat him, the number that will be watched most closely is voter turnout. By law, at least half of Russia's eligible 109 million eligible voters must cast ballots for the election to be declared valid.

Moscow, 14 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A confident President Vladimir Putin cast his ballot in Russia's presidential election this morning. Speaking at a polling station in Moscow, Putin praised his five opponents.

"From my days as an athlete, I have learned to treat my competitors and opponents with great respect. This is what my trainers taught me. I respect them for the honor they have given me by competing against me, for going into the ring against me, as we used to say. I think that they are all worthy people. We'll know the results tomorrow morning," Putin said.

"They must have their wealth confiscated so that they don't have millions and we have nothing. That's the one thing that upsets me. Nothing else."
The five hoping to challenge Putin include 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.

Ironically, today's statement by Putin -- on voting day -- was one of the few occasions in recent weeks when he has even acknowledged the existence of any challengers. Throughout the campaign, Putin refused to take part in any televised debates, air political commercials or even call his travels around the country "campaign trips."

Every day, state-run television devoted extensive coverage to Putin's presidential duties, granting his opponents minimal time on the nightly news. To borrow from Putin's sporting metaphor, it was hardly a level playing field.

This has left most Russians unexcited about today's balloting even if an overwhelming percentage of people personally approve of Putin. In last December's parliamentary elections, only 56 percent of eligible voters came to polling stations.

According to the Russian Constitution, at least 50 percent of the country's 109 million eligible voters must cast their votes today for the election to be valid.

Initial turnout numbers from Russia's far eastern regions suggest that threshold will be crossed, but not by much. Turnout figures from the port city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii on the Pacific, where balloting has already ended, was 51 percent.

In the major regional center of Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, turnout by 4 p.m. local time stood at 55 percent.

In Vladivostok, at 2 p.m. local time, 43 percent of voters had turned out to cast ballots.

In the Russian capital Moscow this morning, a random survey at a polling station in one of the city's northern districts found overwhelming support among voters for Putin. Voters praised Putin for being personable and vigorous, unlike the president's predecessors. In the words of one voter, who was asked to characterize what she liked best about Putin: "[He's] kind, honest, handsome, and pleasant."

When asked to elaborate about specific issues, few voters could point to individual policies initiated by Putin with which they agreed or disagreed.

And this, in a sense, has been a hallmark of this issue-less campaign. Many Russians will vote for Putin because he is the best-looking candidate, because he speaks decisively, because he appears to be intelligent and in command, because he has brought stability to the country, because -- in short -- he is the incumbent and he has no worthy challengers.

Voters believe Putin wants to do good for the country, but he is surrounded by incapable or corrupt politicians and their lobbyists at levels of government. Many people hope that he can use a second term in office to cut through the bureaucracy and help Russia regain some of its tarnished glory.

One pensioner explained the logic of giving Putin a second term this way: "You become president, you don't know your way around yet. It's hard and the people around you are all bandits. What can you do all alone and all at once? Nothing. Now he's had a chance to get his bearings and so maybe...There's only one thing that upsets me. Why do we need these oligarchs? They should have all their oil, gas, electricity -- everything -- taken away from them. And the money should be used to help pensioners and people on welfare. That's the only thing I fault him for. Why can't he take away their money? It's state money. They must have their wealth confiscated so that they don't have millions and we have nothing. That's the one thing that upsets me. Nothing else."

Many Muscovites, however, despite praise for Putin, say they will not go to vote. Twenty-five-year old Andrei, a car mechanic, does not believe the president alone can overcome the tide of corruption that surrounds him. "What's the situation in our country today? Criminal elements have penetrated so far into the upper echelons of power -- corruption reaches so high -- that he can't do anything for now," he said. "He needs a strong team."

Thirty-six-year-old Marina appears even more pessimistic. She says she will go to the polls -- and tick off "none of the above." "I will not vote for anyone," she said, "Against all candidates. It seems to me that none of the candidates which have been put forward can change the situation in the country."

Polling stations in Russia's western-most Kaliningrad region are due to close at 8 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Prague time). Initial election results are expected several hours after that.

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