By the beginning of this week the number of presidential candidates had risen to 25 people. As the newspaper Vremya MN has noted, this is not the limit yet. Another six initiative groups will soon correct some inaccuracies found by the Central Election Commission in their documents and apply for registration once again. Among those who are seeking attention of the press there are people of all categories. The cinema director Stanislav Govorukhin and leader of the Movement for Civilian Dignity Ella Panfilova are known to people throughout the country, but there are also some obscure figures, such as Alexander Demin, Chief of the Union of Cossack Formations; Levon Sarvazyan, leader of the Party of People’s Capital; and Zukhra Bychkova-Zakirzyanova, General Director of the Edem stock company from Chelyabinsk. Stanislav Govorukhin has explained to a Vremya MN correspondent that “Russian citizens must have an alternative.”

It is worthwhile to say that this “alternative character” of the upcoming election is something of a farce. Nobody has any doubts about the final result of the election. However, applicants for the throne do not give up attempts to “illustrate the presence of political democracy in Russia by their own example.”

However, Chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC) Alexander Veshnyakov recently noted that 78 people intended to run in the 1996 presidential election. However, only 11 of them managed to collect the necessary number of signatures then. Vremya MN predicts that current potential participants of the presidential race will soon face the same problems: it is a very difficult task to collect half a million signatures by February 13, as Stanislav Govorukhin has said. Thus, it is not known so far whose names will be on the ballot papers.

Meanwhile, the main event of last week related to the election campaign is apparently the reduction of Vladimir Putin’s rating. Before that his rating was steadily growing.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta was one of the first newspapers that reported about the decline of Vladimir Putin’s rating, although this paper referred to the data of its own Internet poll and stressed that it is supporters of right forces that mainly read the newspaper’s website. However, the fact remains: the rating of Grigory Yavlinsky, the eternal oppositionist, grew by 8% in the week of the Duma scandal among readers of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta website, and 6% out of the 8% were evidently former supporters of Vladimir Putin. However, despite this trend, even among this audience Putin’s rating (46.8%) is more than double Yavlinsky’s rating (22.6%).

The next day Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an interview with the “ideologist” of the communist party (CPRF), Alexander Kravets, who answered the question whether Putin’s rating will remain so high until the election as follows: “I think he is on a downward slide already. Let’s see how fast he will fall.”

Another “Berezovsky-friendly” newspaper, Kommersant-daily, reported that CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov has offered to conduct TV debates with the acting president. The newspaper cited the announcement of the main communist of the Russian federation that now that Putin’s rating has started falling, the leader of the Movement For Victory (i.e. Zyuganov himself) should win the first round of the election.

The newspaper Vedomosti also paid attention to the decline of Vladimir Putin’s rating. The newspaper cited the data of the opinion poll held by the company ROMIR (a member of Gallup International) among Russian businesspeople. According to these data, Putin’s rating has declined from 49% to 36% in the past two weeks. The newspaper states that Russian businesspeople are losing interest in Vladimir Putin as a candidate for president. There are enough reasons for this. One of them is the recent scandal in the Duma, in the course of which “Putin’s adherents demonstrated their disrespect for the parliamentary minority and readiness to come to agreements with the Communists.” Besides, Putin’s election campaign has not changed anything in the relations between business and the state authorities: “The tax pressure has not been eased; money is being pumped into the defense branch. Foreign partners mistrust Russia.” The conditions for business do not improve.

Furthermore, Russian society is beginning to reconsider its attitude toward the situation in Chechnya. The latest reports about factual introduction of military censorship have exerted a great influence on the public opinion, and “the arrest of journalist Andrei Babitsky resembles the times that passed long ago.” Vedomosti comes to the conclusion that there is no wonder that 24% of businesspeople believe that if Putin is elected president, dictatorship will begin (a week before 19% of businesspeople were of this opinion).

The newspaper Trud, in turn, published the data of a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Study Center, according to which Putin’s rating was not much reduced: only from 62% to 58%. Enumerating possible reasons for such changes, Trud says: “It is important for Russians how independent Vladimir Putin is, where he will act regardless of those offstage lobbyists that are disliked by the society.”

The weekly Vek expressed its opinion about “offstage lobbyists” more definitely in its article “Is Berezovsky the Second Suslov?” (Suslov was an influential offstage figure during the Brezhnev time – translator’s note). The weekly believes that the desire of the notorious political manipulator, who has also become an “influential parliamentary figure,” to gain the fame of the main ideologist of the current regime may considerably spoil the Kremlin’s reputation. First, “personal friendship with Berezovsky can hardly ad popularity to any politician.” According to “Vek, there is no wonder that the tone of the press regarding the acting president has become stricter, as well as the criticism of the government’s economic and social policy and the policy in Chechnya. “It is rumored that business circles are beginning to realize that since Zyuganov is unacceptable in principle and Putin is too ‘obscure,’ it is necessary to promote some other candidate for president. In this context businessman have begun to mention the name of Samara Governor Konstantin Titov.

Vek also says that even Berezovsky himself has started to talk about some serious and constructive alternative for Putin, for the sake of “development of democracy in Russia.” In reality, as the weekly believes, Berezovsky is simply not interested in Putin’s victory in the first round of the election. “The logic is clear. A president that wins the very first round of the election is free to act as he likes. He is so popular in the society that the very next day may dismiss his old team and appoint a new one. Another thing is when the president wins after the second round. In this case it is possible to scare him with such obligations and put forward such strong arguments that he will soon be convinced that he will never do with this main advisor and ideologist.”

The magazine Dengi reports that Vladimir Putin has somewhat worsened his relations with those who helped him gain his current popularity. One of these people was Boris Berezovsky. According to the magazine, Berezovsky dislikes Putin’s idea to conduct a reform in the security structures and dismiss Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo, who is reputed to be Berezovsky’s protege. Besides, rumors are circulating that Director of the Presidential Administration Alexander Voloshin may soon be substituted by Director of the apparatus of the government Dmitry Kozak. In other words, the conspicuous independence may cause a strike on Putin’s rating from the oligarch’s circle. According to “Dengi, it is not difficult to do this: it will be enough to tell the people the truth about Chechnya to reduce Putin’s rating even more. As is known, Putin’s rating is a result of his military victories in the North Caucasus.

However, it is not quite clear what is in store for the country if the acting president’s rating declines. “There is no other real candidate for president in Russia now, and one will hardly appear within the remaining two months.” Still there are some alternatives, as Dengi thinks. There are even some rumors about the Mikhalkov-Chernomyrdin chord. The magazine believes that “there is some point in such rumors: Mikhalkov is a well-known person in our country and is respected in the West; and the country prospered under Chernomyrdin, this is doubtless.” However, the country “prospered” thanks to Western credits and high oil prices, but who cares about this now?

Vremya MN stresses the correlation between Putin’s political prospects and the results of the Chechen campaign. The newspaper publishes the latest announcements of the military. Commander of the North Caucasus Military District General Kazantsev has stated that the operation in Chechnya will be finished by the end of February. Commander of the Eastern Grouping of the Federal Forces General Troshev has said that the campaign will be over on February 26. The newspaper notes that “this date miraculously coincides with the date of the official beginning of the electoral agitation.”

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov also thinks that the war and the election are interconnected. According to Vremya MN, Maskhadov has promised any assistance to those who are warring in Grozny; he thinks that in the middle of march the war will be over. The newspaper itself also believes that the war will be over very soon; otherwise the “small and victorious war” that has made Putin a favorite of the Russian people may cost him his career. There are two alternatives of the further development of the situation: either the Russian military seize Grozny at the expense of great losses, or Chechens will resist until March, and then Russia will have to agree with then on the conditions of “Russia’s” victory. However, such a victory cannot come cheap in any case.

Novaya Gazeta has published an interview with Director of the Effective Politics Fund Gleb Pavlovsky, who disagrees with the statement that Putin’s popularity is caused purely by the Chechen factor. Pavlovsky said, “Show me a PR agency or a political consultant who advised Putin to unleash the war in Chechnya! The thing is that it is not Putin that launched that war from the point of view of the average voter. It is the war that approached the voter closely. The enemy appeared that killed sleeping people. This enemy was close, in the voter’s own house, in its basement.” Pavlovsky considers the rumors that it is the Kremlin that allegedly instigated the explosions of dwelling houses to be absurd. He said, “Just imagine some Russian Vasilys or Abrams that assembled somewhere and decided to explode a house somewhere in Pechatniki, and there was no information leakage about that! And after that some 10 ninja were found who silently performed what they had been ordered to!”

On the same day Novye Izvestia repeated once again that Putin’s rating depends on the course of the Chechen campaign and noted that now that the society seems to realize that it is not the Army that loses a lot of people and kills peaceful civilians but politicians that should resolve the Chechen conflict, the society may be scared once more. The newspaper says that “there may be any methods of intimidation now.”

Keeping in mind the explosions in Pechatniki and the Kashira Highway in Moscow, one should not rule out the possibility of some incidents in the underground, at factories, or in some remote districts where no high-ranking authorities live. The matter does not concern Chechen terrorists. The newspaper had allegedly contacted a figure from Maskhadov’s circle and asked him to comment on Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that the danger of terrorist acts has considerably grown. The answer was that “Chechen armed forces do not war against peaceful Muscovites.”

Novye Izvestia has noted that “one may have his own opinion about the rumors about Russian special services’ possible participation in the terrorist acts that have been discussed in Russian and foreign media.” Still, the newspaper asks the question: “Who we should fear more: Chechens who are warring in their dear Chechnya, or those who rule this electoral-commercial war in Moscow?” The article is entitled “Moscow Getting Ready for New Terrorist Acts.”

Thus, the topic “Putin and special services” still interests the press. The journal Profil said in its first issue, in which it predicted the Duma scandal, that Putin, being from special services, unlike Boris Yeltsin, who was from the Communist party apparatus, will neither let down his opponents, nor extol his friends. “The school of special services differs from that of the Communist party by the fact that it does not teach to remember offenses and excessive fervor long. This school teaches to accumulate professional cynicism. Any action will do to fulfill a task, and people are only a material.” It is worthwhile to note that the very intrigue of the Duma scandal looked like a vivid illustration of this statement.

After “the tears of the right were dried,” as Kommersant-daily has put it, the understanding between the Union of Right Forces and Unity restored, and the conditions of the surrender of the Duma minority were discussed in detail in the Kremlin. But the administration has made a convenient Duma and a convenient speaker for itself. Vremya MN has wrote: “After the Kremlin ordered the Union of Right Forces (URF) and Unity to love each other, the pro-governmental wing (these two factions plus People’s Deputy) will include 170 votes. The Liberal democrats (LDPR), most of members of Russian Regions (about 30 votes), and about ten independent deputies will also support this wing on key issues, which total 226 votes. Yabloko and a part of Fatherland-All Russia will also support bills aimed at development of the market economy. Thus, the Kremlin will be able to promote some decisions regardless of the left wing of the Duma. The newspaper states that the acting president “may have some problems with Parliament during the presidential campaign, but after March 26, Putin will have a tame Duma.”

The journal Expert estimates the situation in a somewhat different way. According to the journal, at the end of the parliamentary campaign Boris Berezovsky openly proposed his assistance to Vladimir Putin in the presidential election but was rejected. Berezovsky understood that the future president might not need his services and would soon banish him from power structures. After that the rather simple situation surrounding the election of the Duma speaker (as a matter of fact, none of the factions was against Seleznev) was made a great PR scandal, which led to negative consequences for Putin. “For one day he lost approximately one-third of the public confidence he had accumulated for the previous several months of his being at power.” Besides, the acting president was accused of sympathizing with the Communists and inclination for dictatorship. He had to face two strong opponents: Yevgeny Primakov and Grigory Yavlinsky, and so his chances to become the president considerably dwindled. According to “Expert, it is Berezovsky who derived profits from this scandal: “The implication of these activities is very simple: he wanted to show Putin what kind of parliament he could make and that Putin would not be able to do without him.”

Profil agrees with Expert that the scandal was connected not with the “Putin’s Duma” but with “Berezovsky’s Duma.” According to Profil, Berezovsky “has bought the left with the ORT channel. He must have promised not to refused them informational capacities of the first channel. And now the Communists together with Unity, People’s Deputy, and Agrarians is the mighty faction of Berezovsky. The Communists belong to Berezovsky from now on, and they will not let Putin infringe on the first channel.”

Besides, from the viewpoint of Profil, Putin’s ignoring positions of the right, who had many times declared their support for him as a candidate for president, manifests his notorious professional cynicism of a special service officer. The journal writes that Putin’s first steps make it clear that he does not care about who to rely on in the presidential election, and such concepts as ‘healthy forces of the society” do not exist for him. Having been brought up by the KGB, he dotes on the strong state, and such people, especially those who have a Lubyanka slant, do not care about social interests.”

However, the right wing was not offended. As Novoye Vremya magazine noted, the logic of everything what is going on in our country suppresses any personalities. The journal notes that this logic is not favorable for the liberal development.

However, Anatoly Chubais, one of the URF leaders, according to Vedomosti, announced in Davos that “Russia is experiencing the economic growth for the first time in the past 14 years.” Chubais expressed his surety that “Duma liberals will manage to convince Putin that it is necessary for Russia to develop according to the Western economic model.”

According to Vedomosti, representatives of the Russian delegation were embarrassed only once, when a foreign journalists asked them to say what Putin is like. “None of the Russian representatives wished to be the first to speak. The answer was an embarrassed silence.”

To all appearances, Vladimir Putin is a person in a mask for the Russian elite, the society, and the press. Novaya Gazeta has called him “Mister Nobody.” However, there is no alternative to this “masked person.” As a politician quoted by Kommersant-daily has said, “Russia is pregnant with Putin.” And various analysts are intensively arguing what will be the result of the confinement.

Yakov Krotov, an Obshchaya Gazeta journalist, does not agree with the common opinion that the new government does not have any program. “There is a program. It was published, but nobody seems to have noticed it. Have people forgotten how to read official documents? Have they forgotten how they scrutinized “Pravda” with a microscope? All right, they will soon recollect: there are good and neat teachers for this purpose.” The article on Obshchaya Gazeta is entitled “State Security as a National Idea.”

Igor Klyamkin, a Moskovskie Novosti correspondent, thinks that Putin’s program article “Russia on the Border of the Millennium” is gloomy. “It is not because the key words of the article have been used by Zyuganov many times. The point is that these words look to the past, and principally new problems of the country are not even mentioned in the article.” Klyamkin considers that “all the current talks about Russia’s being a great state and about patriotism will remain inane rhetoric until Russia finds its proper place in the modern world.”

Director of the Institute for Problems of Globalization Mikhail Delyagin directly asserts in his interview to Literaturnaya Gazeta that “the personal cult is coming back.” However, Delyagin notes that he is not interested in the personality of the acting president. “Unlimited power influenced all people in a similar way.” The point is that there is a process of construction of absolute personal power of one person in Russia. But having constructed it, this person will have to solve great problems, chiefly economic ones. “And if he continues to rely on his current weapon (and he does not have a different one), he will not solve these problems. In this situation any leader has two alternatives: either to start to suppress the dissatisfaction in the society, or to transfer the power to someone cleverer. But the second option is hardly imaginable…”

However, this pessimistic forecast may come true only after the presidential election. In the opinion of Delyagin, there is every reason to assume that “an electoral present in the guise of Berezovsky’s dismissal may be in store for Russia. The dismissal does not mean depriving him of his parliamentary mandate, but the situation when the Kremlin’s doors will be tightly closed before him.”

This dismissal is considered nearly as the acting president’s electoral resource in a critical situation. “Although it is terribly difficult to banish Berezovsky, his dismissal on the eve of the presidential election or right after it would raise Putin’s rating.” This move, according to Delyagin, is useful for everyone in the country.

It is worth noting that the demonization of Berezovsky, which the media were talking about on the eve of the parliamentary election, has not ceased on the eve of the presidential election.