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Russia: Presidential Election Campaign Lacks Excitement

With acting President Vladimir Putin still the overwhelming favorite, there has been little excitement in the campaign leading up to Russia's presidential election in 10 days. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent reports that other candidates are struggling to keep up the appearance of competition amid the general atmosphere of futility.

Moscow, 17 March 2000 (RFE/RL ) -- "Boring" and "limp" are the adjectives generally used by Russian media to describe the electoral campaign. No real issues are being discussed, no public scandals have arisen to add spice, and there is very little suspense about the result.

In short, the campaign has engendered no feeling of competition. Candidates aren't even using the free airtime they are entitled to.

For Russian voters, the chief difference between this presidential campaign and the last one, in 1996, is obvious. When Boris Yeltsin started his campaign four years ago, he had a close-to-zero popularity rating in public-opinion polls, and had to overcome the 25 percent the polls ascribed to the leading candidate, communist Gennady Zyuganov. With the help of money donated by several of the country's richest businessmen -- or oligarchs, as they are known -- Yeltsin ran an expensive and ultimately successful campaign arguing that the alternative to him was a return to communism.

This year, Putin is so far ahead of the other candidates -- with most polls showing his support at more than 50 percent -- that campaigning is seen as almost pointless. As a result, far fewer paid campaign commercials are being aired. Among this year's candidates, RFE/RL Russian analyst Laura Belin points out, only politician Grigory Yavlinsky and Samara Governor Konstantin Titov have invested at all in commercials. In 1996, by contrast, Yeltsin was joined by Yavlinsky, regional governor Alexander Lebed and far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in running up large bills for paid TV ads.

Still, some candidates argue that there are issues at stake in this campaign. Yavlinsky -- whose stance is uncompromisingly anti-Kremlin and pro-Western democracy -- told RFE/RL that he considers this presidential election as important as the last one. Yavlinsky says he is fighting for second place on March 26 in order to confront Putin in a run-off:

"This is not merely symbolic. My participation in these elections is completely concrete political work. It is necessary to overtake Zyuganov [who is second in the polls] and get into the second round. It would be shameful for Russia to go into the 21st century with Zyuganov, a Leninist communist."

Yavlinsky says that beating Zyuganov for second place would be just the first step in his plan. The second step would be to beat Putin, whom he sees as a "closet communist."

But neither Yavlinsky nor Zyuganov has yet made the most of their campaigns on television. Although both are often interviewed, they don't personally take part in free debates on public channels, sending their representatives instead. Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other candidates considered minor have criticized this tactic.

Many Russian media see Communist leader Zyuganov's candidacy this time simply as a useful tool for Putin to boost the democratic appearance of the race. But in public at least, Zyuganov has complained that his campaign is being hindered by what he suggests is a Kremlin-inspired information black-out. In a formal complaint to the Central Electoral Commission about uneven public-television coverage of candidates, he said that state-controlled channels give Putin about 15 times more air time than they give him.

Sergei Obukhov, a Zyuganov campaign spokesman, told RFE/RL that in some ways he is nostalgic for the 1996 campaign:

"The earlier campaign [by Yeltsin] was built on creating fear of the communists and of Zyuganov coming to power. But this time, the object of fear has changed. This time it's every citizen's fear of being blown up in his home, and there's only one savior -- Mr. Putin. Chechnya has changed the nature of this campaign."

Analyst Belin says Zyuganov is actually getting more coverage -- and more neutral coverage -- this year than he did in 1996.

And according to Mikhail Matyshin, the head of the public-relations firm Primum Mobile, several opponents of Putin are actually running real campaigns, although he says they are modest and low-key. His company organized ratings by a dozen specialists-- politicians, journalists and public-relations executives -- that evaluated the campaigns of all the candidates.

Their judgments -- published in the weekly "Kompanya" -- put Putin at the head of the list for effective campaigns, closely followed by Zyuganov and Yavlinsky. Zyuganov got good marks for his press conference on economic policy, which stressed a social democratically inspired program. Yavlinsky's campaign highlights were said to be his Chechen peace plan and several interviews on private TV.