“The reception is over,” the newspaper Vremya MN, stated on Monday. Only 15 applicants for the presidential seat managed to submit all the necessary documents until 6 p.m. on February 13. The Central Election Commission (CEC) will check the authenticity of signature lists and the candidates’ reports about the property for eight days. And after that the final number of participants of the electoral marathon will be known.

However, as the newspaper Segodnya has noted, it is absolutely clear that not all the figures on the list will be full-fledges rivals to Vladimir Putin, who is the main favorite of the upcoming election. “Not all candidates even want to get the presidential seat actually, since for many of them it is enough to acquire personal immunity for a couple of months of the presidential agitation. Some candidates regard the election as a method of promotion for a politician or a businessman.” According to the newspaper, despite the long lists of applicants for the presidential seat, Putin’s victory in the very first round of the election is unquestionable. “Thus, Boris Yeltsin’s idea about the successor is coming true.”

In this connection Director of the Russian Public Opinion Study Center (RPOSC) Yury Levada raises a question in the monthly appendix to Nezavisimaya Gazeta called NG-Scenarios. He asks what is in store for Russia after March 26. Levada says, “For the first time for the past ten years Russia faces the situation, when the presidential election is going to be non-alternative. It is not important whether there will be five or 15 surnames on the voting list. This is of no importance, since taking into account the current layout of forces on the electoral arena and people’s attitude toward Vladimir Putin, one can see that there is no alternative to Putin now. Therefore, we will have not an election but a plebiscite, i.e. a nationwide vote for a candidate that was defined beforehand and is the only possible winner.”

The suitable candidacy was chosen regardless of the people, “somewhere in corridors of the government,” and oddly enough, the public opinion does not object to the current state of things. The situation of some “totalitarian eastern unanimity” is being formed.

Thus, the RPOSC director states that “after the decade of political tiffs the Russian society has proved to be not ready for open public politics.” In this situation there is no wonder that “the minion’s laurels are granted to a secretive person, a figure from behind the stage, who was factually elected beforehand.”

The newspaper Izvestia supports the idea that Putin’s support is based not on the personality of the acting president but on some peculiarities of the modern Russian society. “The Russian consciousness either loves or hates bosses but never perceives them normally, from the functional point of view,” the newspaper notes. Russian voters constantly forget that they not just elect a president but also employ him, and he is to perform some duties for a certain pay. Russians, as usual, “are confusing the government and the family, politics and sex, rationality and passion. We regard the government as a fiancee.” As a result, “Russia is once again threatened by a personal cult, which is caused by the anonymity of the population, by its negligence.”

However, not all publications share the opinion about the predetermined character of the upcoming presidential election. The journal Novoe Vremya stated in one of its articles dedicated to the topic of the fate of the journalist of the Luiberty Radio Andrei Babitsky that the readiness of the society to support the government even in such affairs is caused by the “Stockholm syndrome.” This is a syndrome of a hostage, whose life may be used in any way possible: he may be seized, imprisoned, pummeled, killed, exchanged, etc. If it is possible to do that with Babitsky, it is possible to do it with anyone.” “Novoe Vremya rejects the idea that “the heir of the throne” was framed by the affair with Babitsky and that it is necessary to “save the prince.” “There is no need to save Putin. Just try to save somebody else, e.g. Babitsky or yourself,” the journal states. The journal is sure that “persecution of democracy is usually begun with persecution of journalists, and the current affair is naturally connected with Chechnya. The ugly, fierce, savage Chechen freedom that is being strangled now looks like a weird symbol of Russia’s freedom, which is being currently trodden on… However, the state order that is going to substitute for the current criminal anarchy will exceed any Khattab by the scale of legalized banditry.” Therefore, Novoe Vremya calls for voters to change their minds: “The presidential election will be not tomorrow. There is the honest but hapless Yavlinsky, the jolly Titov, etc. Any life is better than non-existence. Any freedom is better that that large filtration point where Kremlin technologists are driving the great country. Any misery is better than the zone, from which God help Andrei Babitsky to get out.”

Novye Izvestia stresses that “rescuing Andrei Babitsky will remain a vital topic until he returns home, being alive and healthy.” However, the newspaper admits that the question of Babitsky’s fate implies one more question: What country are we living in? The newspapers states that the way state officials violate human rights makes a gloomy impression. “It is high time high-ranking officials understood that gross blunders of petty officials are a trifle compared to the consequent explanations of their bosses from the point of view of their destructive power. These explanations ought to make any Russian citizen fear not only for Babitsky’s fate but also for their own future.”

The newspaper Segodnya directly states that Babitsky’s fate has become an important political factor: “The longer the journalist’s silence lasts, the more popular Babitsky himself becomes, and the more shattered is the position of the main candidate for president, who has taken personal control over Babitsky’s case.”

Meanwhile, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a newspaper that often reflects the opinion of the aforementioned “Kremlin technologists,” the case of Babitsky is a token of weakness of the current government and personally the acting president. “The high circles have been scared by truth. So, they have felt the unstable character of the Chechen successes as well as the danger that independent media represent.”

Although the newspaper ironically regards the lamentations of Valeria Novodvorskaya, who says that all such people “will be put to jail again,” they also think that Babitsky’s case is a bad omen. “In the last war no one caught Yelena Masyuk but Chechens themselves. But Putin did it.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta admits that Putin’s rating is very high, but it notes that it is unstable and may soon decline. Therefore, the newspaper states that we should not regard Putin as the inevitable president, since Russia is an unpredictable country.” The newspaper admits that Putin and his company have eliminated all their potential rivals, and the absence of rivals, since it may lead to impunity, which may spoil even this Kremlin candidate that looks so intelligent on TV screens. Therefore, the acting president needs a good rival in order to keep politically fit. “There is a possibility that the Kremlin is already looking for such a rival in order to prevent the election from becoming a plebiscite.”

Meanwhile, according to Segodnya, the Kremlin is disappointed with its having chosen a representative of special services as the successor, since “Putin acts in a rather straightforward way and rarely listens to pieces of advice.” The main question the Kremlin Administration is trying to answer now is as follows: Will it be possible to manipulate Putin like Yeltsin? Kremlin inhabitants have every reason to doubt it after the acting president’s announcements that the government is slackened and that “there is no dictatorship of the law in the country.” “If you analyze Putin’s latest announcements, you will come to the conclusion that the essence of all of them is that what was before Putin was nothing but destruction of the state order,” the newspaper says.

In another article Segodnya calls Putin a representative of “a new generation of the Kremlin’s proteges,” who are noted for their “accuracy, high capacity, persistence, strictness, and absence of any ideological principles.” Segodnya juxtaposes Putin with Shoigu and Aksenenko. “The growth of significance of secondary officials was possible due to Yeltsin’s policy, since his supply of political ‘stars” was exhausted… A radical process of changing the governing elite is going on. The old elite has apparently realized this and may soon rebel.”

The change of kings is a serious personal drama for the retinue, as Obshchaya Gazeta says. None of Yeltsin’s politicians inherited by Putin is sure about his/her political future after March 26, although none of them can reproach Putin of ungratefulness.” Officials are of the opinion that Putin is keeping the personnel issue in suspense. They also hope that the acting president will not have enough people of his own for a new team, and therefore he will have to resort to representative of Yeltsin’s old team.

The press continues to discuss Putin’s current activities or at least his plans. In the article entitled “Furtive Democracy” the newspaper Izvestia states:

“The very desire to obtain such a position implies dialog between candidates and voters on acute problems. Even if the problems are old and seem to be not that important, they form the general informational picture. Voters want to get answers to a number of questions for the horse’ mouth, so to say. If they do not get them, they will continue seeking them all the same, but in some other place.”

Practically all newspapers wrote about the case of Babitsky as a probable “prospective model” of the future government. However, there are also some other reasons for questions. “In the center of Moscow in Yakimanka Street a secret center for strategic developments is writing a program of Russia’s living for 10-15 years. This figure made some analysts think that Putin is not averse to ensconcing himself in the Kremlin for another 14 years, and his administration is already preparing the corresponding bill. Elections is a good reason for elucidating one’s plans for the future, but Putin does not intend to do it.”

According to Izvestia, Putin’s intentions to strengthen the state are also mysterious. “He is said to intend to strengthen the state. But how does he intend to do it? Does he intend to strengthen the state by means of appointing officers to all important positions, or by equaling rights of federation subjects?”

The figure of the future prime minister under Putin is also an enigma. Putin keeps silent, and maddened officials of the White House start to propose unbelievably guesses. Izvestia also remembers the scandals surrounding the resignation of Senior Deputy Interior Minister General Kolesnikov and Sergei Shoigu’s announcement that Putin may lead Unity, which were never commented on by Putin. The newspaper also wrote about some rumors that a certain agency for counteracting corruption will soon be established, which will control all federal ministries and agencies except for the Defense Ministry and the General Headquarters. According to the newspaper, these facts show that Putin has inherited Yeltsin’s manner of personnel changes. Besides, he regards any trustworthy information about what is going on in the topmost echelons of the government as something extremely harmful.

However, the press is beginning to successfully answer its own questions. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, for one, considers the talks about the mysterious nature of Putin to be nonsense. “Vladimir Vladimirovich indicated the methods, by which he will govern Russia, long ago.” The newspaper cites a few examples: “For the past two weeks alone, the acting president managed to reconcile Chubais and Berezovsky, agree with Gazprom on financial support, and obtain his own TV channel, regardless of Chubais and Berezovsky.” According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, the transition of Oleg Dobrodeev from the NTV television channel to RTR was stimulated by Putin himself.”

The journal Profil cites the opinion of Director of the Applied and Regional Politics Agency Valery Khomyakov in this connection. Khomyakov does not doubt that Dobrodeev’s transition to the state television is connected with the upcoming presidential election and its consequences. “Keeping it in mind, Putin is trying to gather the best professionals in the field of information and propaganda on the state TV channel, which will later become the mouthpiece of the new president’s policy.”

Profil stresses that Putin is thinking about the period after the election rather than the presidential campaign. Currently, everything seems to be all right about the presidential race. The services of the state television will be needed later, after the election, when “the country’s finances will sing, and even howl, romances.” The state channel will lay the blame on some scapegoats, the list of which is currently being compiled in Putin’s circle.

However, the country has to face the hardest phase before the election. This period will be crucial also for the acting prime minister, “who should be careful now in order not to trip on his own shadow,” as the weekly Vek put it. The prominent political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov asserted in his interview to Vek that remaining secretive is a part of Putin’s strategy, since revealing his political orientation would have deprived him of a large part of the vote.

This is what RPOSC Director Yury Levada meant when he wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta about the “extremely high level of confidence in Putin combined with the extremely scanty knowledge of his future politics, his principles, his orientation, and his future team.” “The right-winged expect him to turn to the right, the left-winged want him to return to the times of social equality, patriots expect him to counteract the intrigues of the West, whereas liberals want him to strengthen Russia’s relations with the West. And practically all of them are sure that the straightforwardness of the acting president will help him introduce some order to the country (although it is not yet quite clear what kind of order is meant).”

However, what is already known about Putin’s program does not hinder politicians and the society to hope for the better. The newspaper Vremya MN, writes that Putin’s ideas look impeccable for ordinary people: “these are order, law, and prosperity of the motherland.” It is people similar to Chubais that are to embody these ideas, although they should be more flexible. “As for oligarchs, who now pretend to be languid and motionless, they should be actively employed in order to improve the life in the country. However, it is necessary to keep them at a distance.” Putin is for education and culture and against nationalism and anarchy. “Is it too little for such a candidate?” the newspaper asks.

Obshchaya Gazeta makes an attempt of a more detailed analysis of Putin’s actual, not declared, program. In the opinion of journalists of this newspaper, the differences between Putin and his rivals are insignificant. What people like Putin for was needed by voters before Putin was promoted.

The “turn to keeping a distance from the West and fighting for Russia’s national interests” was not invented by Putin but by his recent rival Yevgeny Primakov. Tolerance with the Communists was the main sin that media reproached Primakov and Luzhkov for. They both talked a lot about order and discipline too. And it seems that practically everybody talks about patriotism in Russia.” It is just ridiculous to look for ideological contradictions between Putin and the leaders of Fatherland-All Russia. That is why the polemics between Putin and Primakov is more like nagging an old man by a group of impish boys.

As for the true tasks of the new power, Obshchaya Gazeta thinks that they are determined by the interests of the governing class. The main of these tasks is “to make everyone agree with the results of the privatization.” This idea may be worded in the following way: “Let some of us be rich and some poor; let some of us be robbed and some be thieves. But we all are Russians.”

Although the current system makes the people’s rebellion almost unlikely, it does not fully comfort the ruling elite. “There is the Communist party, a strong one, which continues talking that the people were robbed and that the revenge is inevitable.” It is impossible to simply prohibit this party as Berezovsky proposed. The only possible way to hush it up is to bribe it. This idea of Berezovsky is quite sensible, since the Communists, unlike their electorate, are quite well-off people, and they are obviously tired of the boring role of the people’s defenders.

The new power also needs a foreign enemy. Chechnya is successfully performing this function so far. However, the place will be vacant after the military operation is over. Obshchaya Gazeta surmises that the West may become the foreign enemy after the Chechen campaign. “Inasmuch as the process of embezzling state property was held under pro-Western slogans, the social protest has acquired an anti-Western form.” Besides, Russia’s relations with the Western legal system are being aggravated: “In the beginning, the elite did not realize this danger, naively supposing that money resolves everything in the West, and the Russian elite was sure that it had enough money. But the Western society has deceived all expectations… The Russian elite started to feel discomfiture and even feared for its material security.” Thus, the people’s anti-western spirits are harmonically combined with the elite’s anti-western phobias. The rest of the policy is discontinuation of domestic squabbles within the elite, curbing mass media, and intensification of state regulation of the economy, since the old slogan of market reforms is out of fashion already.

“This is the essence of Putin’s policy,” the newspaper concludes.

Thus, there is no wonder that, according to latest opinion polls conducted by the RPOSC, 67% of Russians consider that after Yeltsin’s resignation the power was not transferred but remained in hands of the same team. However, the acting president’s rating has declined in the past week by 1%, although it is still the highest rating among all political figures.

Since the non-alternative elections is nonsense, and besides, those who have power are not interested in Putin’s victory in the first round, the journal Kompania published the main political rumor this week. It said that Boris Berezovsky has finally determined his alternative to Putin and will stake his hopes and money on Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, who is nominated as a candidate for president by the Union of Right Forces. Kompania adds that “according to trustworthy sources, Boris Berezovsky has already agreed with a well-known PR figure Gleb Pavlovsky and found $26 million for Titov’s electoral campaign.”

Such a respectable publication as Literaturnaya Gazeta supports Titov. It characterizes him as a regional leader, who “has conveyed a truly liberal policy for nine years in a large region of Russia. He has achieved actual economic results, combining economic reforms with solutions to social problems.”

In other words, a lot of unexpected things may happen before the election. The list of candidates for president is rather large, and many of them may be considerably promoted, provided their electoral campaign is literately conducted. This idea was brilliantly illustrated by the children’s writer Eduard Uspensky in his interview to the weekly appendix to Nezavisimaya Gazeta called Subbotnik. He said that postman Pechkin, a character of one of his tales, could make a good president. “Of course he is a fink, but he is not a scoundrel and may be called a half-decent person. In fact, crocodile Gena and uncle Fyodor are also sensible people. And Russia needs just an honest person now.”