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Candidate With Benefits: The 'Administrative Resources' That Help Putin

Police officers have reportedly been dispatched to guard Putin's billboards against vandalism.
Police officers have reportedly been dispatched to guard Putin's billboards against vandalism.

All things supposedly being equal, one candidate has been more equal than others in the run-up to Russia's presidential election.

Only the incumbent, Vladimir Putin, starred in flattering documentaries backed by state television ahead of the March 18 ballot. His billboards received police protection after incidents of vandalism, according to witnesses and media reports. And he secured two hours of exclusive face time before a nationwide TV audience just weeks before the poll while his opponents bickered in debates that one candidate called a "circus."

These are just some of the benefits Putin has enjoyed throughout the campaign thanks to what are known as "administrative resources" -- a broad range of bureaucratic levers that can be pulled to help ensure a desired electoral outcome for authorities.

He was also able to stage a star-studded campaign rally at Moscow's main stadium amid reports that some in the overflowing crowd were pressured or paid to attend.

With Putin set to win in a landslide, Russian officials have spoken out against abuses of administrative resources during the campaign. But they have largely shrugged off complaints over what Putin's critics and political opponents call the unfair backing he receives from the state machine.

After Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin posted a recent endorsement of Putin on his personal website, a Central Election Commission (CEC) member said the move may have violated election laws barring public servants from using their official position for campaigning -- but added that "it won't impact the outcome of the election."

The exploitation of administrative resources is such an entrenched feature of Russian elections that it is difficult to suddenly halt, according to Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst with R.Politik, a Paris-based think tank.

"The Kremlin has tried to persuade the regional governments not to abuse administrative resources, but it doesn't really work because of the inertia of the system," she told RFE/RL.

Puff Pieces And Billboard Guards

Guidelines of the election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- of which Russia is a member -- state that "while there is a natural and unavoidable incumbency advantage, legislation must be careful to not perpetuate or enhance such advantages."

"Incumbent candidates and parties must not use state funds or resources (i.e., materials, work contracts, transportation, employees, etc.) to their own advantage," the guidelines say.

Yet Putin appears to have taken full advantage of his perch atop Russia's political food chain.

Russian Elections 101: The Shoo-In
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This month, two admiring documentaries about Putin -- each backed by state-run Rossiya-1 television and running more than 90 minutes long -- were released online to much fanfare in the national media.

Communist Party media monitors found that state media had actively advertised one of these films -- published online by its author, state television host Vladimir Solovyov. But Russian elections chief Ella Pamfilova said neither that film nor the second -- by Putin's campaign chief -- released online violated campaign laws.

"We don't regulate the Internet," Pamfilova said.

Two liberal candidates on the ballot -- Grigory Yavlinsky and Ksenia Sobchak -- also complained that Putin's saber-rattling, two-hour, state-of-the-nation speech this month constituted a free campaign ad. Pamfilova dismissed their grievances about the address, which according to the Russian Constitution must be delivered annually, saying it was merely part of Putin's duties.

Putin did not deliver the annual address, which is traditionally held in December, last year. Instead, he gave it just weeks before the election.

Several allegations have also emerged that students in Moscow and beyond are being encouraged or pressured to vote for Putin. Students and staff at an electromechanical college in the central Russian city of Cheboksary late last month were reportedly gathered into an auditorium for a lecture endorsing Putin.

Meanwhile, police officers have reportedly been dispatched to guard Putin's billboards against vandalism. One police sergeant in the city of Kemerovo told RFE/RL that his unit was assigned such a task in order to protect the billboards from the "protest-oriented population."

'Clean' Election?

The independent election monitor Golos has flagged more than 600 reports of alleged election violations involving administrative resources in this campaign so far.

"Authorities have in their possession budgetary and organizational resources that the public has entrusted them with, and these resources should not be used to benefit particular political actors," Golos co-chair Grigory Melkonyants told RFE/RL.

Generation Putin
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In several TV segments flagged by Golos, regional officials or activists were shown heaping praise on Putin without their links to the ruling United Russia party or other pro-Kremlin movements being disclosed to viewers, an RFE/RL analysis found.

One twist in this election season is that senior Russian officials have gone out of their way to criticize the misuse of administrative resources, particularly in the country's sprawling regions, in what is seen as a bid to ensure a "clean" victory for Putin.

With the Kremlin and its surrogates pushing to boost turnout in order to demonstrate Putin's broad mandate, much of the alleged abuse of administrative resources involves reported pressure on students, bureaucrats, and employees simply to go to the polls -- regardless of how they plan to vote.

Andrei Turchak, a top official in Putin's ruling United Russia party, reportedly upbraided regional party officials in February for "using administrative resources" in their efforts to boost turnout.

Meanwhile, even Putin's spokesman apologized after Pamfilova reprimanded him for making public remarks that she called "obvious" campaigning for his boss.

Konstantin Kostin, an adviser to Putin's first deputy chief of staff, Sergei Kiriyenko, told the Interfax news agency last month that "all of the signals being sent by the Kremlin and law enforcement authorities are aimed precisely at the absolute elimination of administrative resources where political preferences and campaigning for candidates are concerned."

Stanovaya said such attempts to ensure a "clean" election are hampered in part by governors who fear repercussions if support for Putin -- or turnout -- is too low in their regions, adding that "it's almost impossible to avoid using administrative resources" in contemporary Russia.

"The way they're used may change, it can adapt to the style of the Kremlin, but there are too many efforts by regional authorities to obtain the desired result," she said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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