Russian acting President Vladimir Putin is widely regarded as the likely winner in Russia's presidential elections next month. But there are 10 other candidates, too, who are set to make the race. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports:
Moscow, 22 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Among the 11 candidates vying to become Russia's president are some who are reformist-minded as well as some who appeal to the conservative communist electorate. They include regional governors, a businessman and, of course, former secret servicemen -- one of them Putin himself. They give the March 26 presidential elections, Russia's second such ballot, a colorful and varied appearance.
But given the incumbent's overwhelming lead in the polls, the appearance is deceptive. Putin's opinion poll ratings are three times as high as any of his challengers. Some Russian media are saying the 10 other candidates are just props to make the vote look democratic. The Russian daily "Vedomosti" said today that the other candidates "play an important civic role by providing pretty decorations for a one-man theater."
Many analysts say the election is the Kremlin's dream come true. Only a few months ago -- before Putin's political take-off and Yeltsin's New Year's Eve resignation -- the question on many minds was how the highly unpopular Kremlin entourage would manage to stay in power.
Few observers considered probable a peaceful handover of power to a Kremlin adversary, such as former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov or Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Now, some say that Yeltsin -- by choosing to resign ahead of presidential elections initially planned for June -- accomplished two things: First, he delivered a public message that Russia intended to assure the democratic election of a new head of state. Second, he used democratic methods to his advantage by forcing early elections that give other candidates only three rather than six months to prepare.
Nikolai Petrov is a political analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Endowment. He says that, paradoxically, Putin's undisputed status as favorite might give Russia truly democratic elections because, this time, cheating and mud-slinging are unnecessary:
"Contrary to all expectations, these are not elections about handing over power but again about keeping power. Once more, the person in the Kremlin is the main candidate. The difference with the previous [presidential] election is not only that the time limits have been squeezed and that the [poll] ratings are completely different. It is also that the Kremlin doesn't have to spend [great] sums -- as it did last time -- doesn't need to use certain methods -- including dirty ones -- to achieve its goal, and doesn't have to devise any scenarios in case it fails to win in democratic elections. So the Kremlin can run a relatively calm campaign."
The 11 registered candidates have overcome the first hurdle by gathering the signatures of half a million supporters and submitting an account of their and their families' income and property. A few others failed to meet these conditions and were banned from running by the Central Electoral Commission.
The most prominent rejected candidate is political extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who ran against Boris Yeltsin in 1991. Zhirinovsky was deemed ineligible because he failed to declare a two-room Moscow apartment belonging to his son. Zhirinovsky says he will challenge the ban in court.
According to recent polls, Putin's two major rivals -- Communist Gennady Zyuganov and reformist and anti-Kremlin Grigory Yavlinsky of Yabloko -- are far behind the acting president's 50 percent approval ratings. Zyuganov is the closest runner-up, with around 14 percent, while Yavlinsky is below the 10 percent mark.
Other candidates include Samara governor Konstantin Titov, who achieved prominence by pushing through land privatization in his region despite the State Duma's refusal to pass a law authorizing it. Titov is supported by some members of former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko's Union of Right Forces, an alliance of various democratic groups. Divided between Titov and Putin supporters, the Union of Right Forces announced yesterday that, to avoid an open split, it would not back any single candidate.
Yuri Skuratov, Russia's former prosecutor-general who was suspended a year ago in a sex scandal, barely attained official registration after the electoral commission found a high rate of invalid signatures. Skuratov attracted the Kremlin's hostility after backing a Swiss investigation into corruption by Yeltsin's entourage.
The most surprising -- and the richest -- candidate is Umar Dzhabrailov, a Chechen real-estate magnate with a reputation for shady dealings. Among the others is -- for the first time -- a woman, former Social Affairs minister Ella Pamfilova. With her sex appeal and soft-spoken arguments in favor of democracy, Pamfilova is a heartthrob for many Russian men. She jokingly has declared her objective in running as breaking up what she calls a "stag night."
Other candidates include leftist Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, film director Stanislav Govorukhin, leftist Aleksi Podberyozkin, and former head of the Moscow FSB Yevgeny Sevastyanov.
Petrov cites two reasons why the campaign is not expected to be very combative. He says that since both the electorate and the candidates see Putin's victory as a foregone conclusion, less money and less effort will be spent on it than in 1996, when Yeltsin started out with a rock-bottom rating. He also says that the past few months have shown little variation in ideas for Russia's future:
"We can expect the campaign to be quite non-conflicted because, as we've already seen during the (December) parliamentary elections, programs do not play any particular electoral role and -- I'd say even more -- are quite indistinguishable from one candidate to the next. So the election will again be quite focused on personalities.
But some analysts warn of complacency. They say that one consequence of Putin's high ratings is that voters might not bother to go to the polls at all -- thereby risking the election's invalidation, since a 50 percent turnout is needed for it to be official.