Eleven participants in the presidential race have entered a new stage of the competition. The Central Election Commission has worked out and approved the layout and text of the ballot paper. There is less than a month left before the election and campaigning has been officially permitted. It is the time of various promises on the one side and great expectations on the other. Besides, even taking into consideration the disinclination of the main contender for presidency to publicize his election program which is expected to be immediately torn apart by critics, it is high time its basic principles were made public. Vladimir Putin has done this. At the end of the last week, three “most trusted media” (as the newspaper Segodnya jealously remarked), i.e. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kommersant-daily, and Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article under the headline “An Open Letter of Vladimir Putin to Russian Voters”. This text was another proof of the main candidate’s gift to please all kinds of voters, irrespective of their political views.

Segodnya writes: “Who can deny that it is time to come into direct contact with problems” the main of which are “weakening of the will” (that is, of the state will), and “absence of firm and universally recognized rules”… Who dares to disagree that Russia is “a country of paradoxes”, “a rich country of poor people”?.. How can one deny the statement that foreign policy must be constructed “with the national interests in mind”, etc., etc.?.. It sounds convincing and is attractive for the citizens.

No matter how strange it may seem, it is in the sphere of the foreign policy that Putin will enjoy the greatest success (in any case, this is proved by the information of the Public Opinion Foundation cited by the newspaper Vremya MN). It goes without saying that Putin is also expected to be especially successful in the military sphere. 72% of respondents do not doubt that the current acting president will be able to “strengthen Russia’s military power”, 66% are sure that Putin will preserve the integrity of the country, whereas 59% think that he will also manage to achieve strengthening of the CIS. When it comes to social-economic problems, the percentage of optimists decreases. 47% hope that Putin will extricate Russia from the economic crisis, whereas 45% expect an increase in living standards from him. The citizens’ views of the prospects of a victory over corruption turned out to be the most pessimistic (nevertheless, it is an opportunity to implement one of Putin’s favorite ideas of the “dictatorship of the law”). 29% believe that the new president will get the upper hand over the “Russian mafia octopus” and 48% do not believe this. The rest are still doubting.

From the point of view of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the acting president’s strategy on foreign policy formulated in the “Open Letter” has little chance of success. On the one hand, NG writes, the priority of domestic policy over foreign policy should be taken into consideration. “We must learn this, at last,” Putin remarks. On the other hand, “We are conserving our strength, which does not mean that we are not oriented to expansion, in a good sense of the word.” Thus, as NG emphasizes, Putin, on the one hand, dissociates himself from “the symbol of a wounded Great Power typical for the Russian mentality of the past few years” and the aspiration to return the country “to the path of global struggle against imperialism”. On the other hand, he does not share the views of isolationists who hold that “the CIS comes first, all the rest does not matter”. This position is attractive, but not realistic: over the past few years Russian foreign policy has been trying to regain the markets which Russia lost, and this is hardly possible without the help of the government. Thus, the country is facing the danger of finding itself in greater economic isolation as a result of its “sparing foreign policy”. In this case, Putin’s economic program is doomed to fail.

In another article, NG assesses Putin’s program even more harshly, pointing out that the acting president’s priorities are, for the most part, borrowed from his current rivals. For instance, as the newspaper states, Putin “obviously tried to use Zyuganov’s main trump card – fighting poverty”. The subject of the greatness of Russia was borrowed from Primakov. What is worse, in the opinion of NG, “having imbibed these ideas, Putin did not add anything personal to them, he did not develop them in an original way”, which could have given him an opportunity to present these ideas as his own.

From the point of view of the newspaper Kommersant-daily, the “Letter to the Voters” is deliberately insubstantial – it is a letter, but not a program. Thus, it is sensible to “confine oneself to a number of high-flown words and wishes”, since “there is nothing to discuss or to criticize”. At the same time, it would be a mistake to consider Putin’s letter to be nothing more than rhetoric: “It can be understood from the text what Putin is going to do to the state.” The plans are really great: destroying organized crime, doing away with poverty, protecting the market from the despotism of bureaucrats, etc. However, there is not a single word about the methods to implement these plans. In the opinion of the newspaper, there is a sentence in the letter which draws the reader’s attention: “Those who say that this is not the whole program are right.” We can expect that following the election, as Kommersant writes, Putin “will make his subordinates draw up a large and detailed program for, say, the next ten years. But he will not read it himself,” since there will be no need: having become president, he will brush aside the issues of financial and economic policies which are alien to him and will engage himself with familiar problems: “establishing order among the officials, strengthening the army and national security, fighting crime.” Kommersant-daily also cites the opinion of one of Russian businesspeople – Viktor Mishin, chair of the board of the Krokus-bank: “This letter will not cause an allergic reaction in anyone, but it will not give any food for thought either. This is just another assessment of the situation, but we already know all of this perfectly well. We know what to do. The only question is: how?”

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Yabloko, was much more harsh when speaking about his rival. In an interview with the weekly Argumenty i Fakti, when asked to assess the activity of the acting president, Yavlinsky stated that “a strange military orientation can be discerned in it. At the same time, Putin is not a serious obstacle for various businesspeople who are striving for power.” Yavlinsky spoke ironically about Putin’s intentions to “establish order”: “He is like a deaf, blind and legless guard of a warehouse.” The leader of Yabloko does not believe in any changes following the election: “Many people think: he will become president and persecute all oligarchs, dismiss Berezovsky, all Yeltsin’s proteges. At present, his arms are tied, he is hampered, but once he becomes president… Unfortunately, these are only fruitless dreams.” Putin, in Yavlinsky’s opinion, is a “part of the system created in Yeltsin’s times, which is why he continues to reproduce his sins.”

Relations with oligarchs were also touched upon in the “Open Letter” and the way it was done produced an unfavorable impression on practically all media, both friendly to Putin and opposing him. The letter states that relations with oligarchs will be established “on the common basis, the same as with the owner of a small bakery or a shoe-repairing workshop.” (as NG writes). “Oligarchs can scarcely expect anything positive, judging by this thesis,” NG remarks. “It is hardly possible that Putin communicates with bakers and shoemakers very closely”. Kommersant-daily explains this passage in the following way: “the acting president wants to teach everyone respect for the established rules and correct behavior. He will punish those who break the rules, in accordance with the law.” The newspaper adds ironically: “Some might say that one man cannot handle this. But Putin has no choice.”

The newspaper Segodnya asks bitterly (seemingly, on behalf of oligarchs): “Will those who want to, and can, live in luxury voluntarily help their country, if the election platform of the future leader contains nothing concerning guarantees for private property?”

The newspaper Vedomosti also regards the “Open Letter” skeptically. Alexander Becker, a political observer, found “campanella motifs” in this election document: “It reminds me of the “Sun City” – the authorities will be made to devotedly serve their people, Russia will become a cradle of patriotism, its democracy will be close to perfection, all citizens will prosper.” However, the observer does not see anything strange in these declarations: “Voters do not need just any program: it will be mauled by critics right away, this is all. Putin followed another path. It is seems to be the best way of attracting voters to polling stations.” Becker emphasizes that the position of the “main candidate” is unique. With such a rating, there is no need in the support of politicians, oligarchs, or governors. In Becker’s opinion, this arouses “irrational fear” in the elite: “Oligarchs and regional leaders are not sure whether they will live to see the next summer (in the political sense of the word, of course)”. Hence all speculations about Putin as a mystery man, a “black box”. On the one hand, Putin’s victory is desirable: “without a powerful center Russia is doomed to wallow in the state of “under-reforms”. On the other hand, it is clear that in the course of reforms the center will inevitably deprive regional leaders and oligarchs of exclusive privileges bargained from Yeltsin.” That is why, during the time remaining before the election, the elite will try to “defend itself and minimize Putin’s force” as it possibly can. It will act in two directions: trying to convince the electorate that Putin is capable of “being re-born as a dictator and pressuring the country as a road-roller” and at the same time, telling voters that his victory is inevitable which, in the opinion of political strategists, must negatively affect the attendance at the election (it is of no use to vote if everything has been predetermined). A victory at minimal attendance (or, which is better, in the second round of voting) is not the same as a triumphant victory, and all stresses will be put in a way suitable for oligarchs and governors. “Yes, you are a legitimate president,” they will tell Putin. “But you are not a universally-elected head of state, so you have no right to change our way of life so radically.” Becker’s article is called “Fear of Putin”.

The newspaper Izvestia refers to the same “fear of the upcoming Putin” as an explanation of suggestions of some regional leaders regarding changes in Russia’s constitutional structure published last week. In the middle of February, Governor Aman Tuleev expressed the idea of enlarging Russian regions by means of merging them (the number of regions must not exceed 35). He also suggested that governors should be appointed by the president instead of elected by the population. A week later these suggestions were expounded in the “letter of the three” – Mikhail Prusack of the Novgorod region, Yevgeny Savchenko, governor of the Belgorod region, and Oleg Bogomolov of Kurgan. The next day they were supported by Vladimir Yakovlev, head of St. Petersburg. Izvestia holds that “what is going on can be described in one word – panic”. Regional leaders are sure that they are facing the choice: “either to give in with love or to be raped”. Governors are convinced that after numerous statements by Putin about the necessity of strengthening the vertical power, restrictions on their powers are only a question of time. That is why they seek to meet the requirements of the authorities trying to gain something in exchange, the control over local governments, first and foremost. The long “hidden fight between governors and mayors” has also played its role: if the measures suggested by governors are undertaken, local governments will disappear. However, such serious changes in the system are hardly possible without amending the Constitution, and it seems impossible to get the consent of the Federation Council: the majority of leaders of national republics, unlike governors, seem to have no problems with mayors and they do not hasten to give up their powers. “Why should I give everything up?” cites the magazine Itogi President Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan. This position is supported by “Ilyumzhinov, Bai of Elista, who constantly refuses to send federal taxes to Moscow, Shaimiev, Khan of Kazan, who threatens the federal center with regional separatism, and Luzhkov, Prince of Moscow, who categorically refuses to comply with the Constitution clauses on the right of the citizens to free travel and the choice of the place of residence”. However, according to the information of Itogi, “the Kremlin strategists and Vladimir Putin personally” do not give up the hope to “tame” the Moscow mayor and put an end to the prolonged fight of the federal and capital authorities. As the magazine states, the Kremlin officials cherish plans to begin “pedagogical work” with the Federation Council in order to diminish its obstinacy by changing the speaker. The Kremlin has been displeased with Stroev following the scandal with Skuratov (“All in all, the old man has been there too long,” one of the officials of the Presidential Administration remarked in a private conversation with the correspondent of the weekly). Stroev’s place is planned to be given to Luzhkov, which will tune up the dialogue of the legislative and executive powers to another key.

Obshchaya Gazeta points out that the initiative of the Kemerovo governor was supported by those heads of regions who have already completed their second terms in office and have no chance of remaining in power. It is a way out for them: “It is forbidden to run for a third term, but it is possible to be appointed! Everything depends on the president’s will alone!” “OG” cites a curious fact: not long ago before the beginning of a public discussion of the idea of appointing governors, the Internet site of the Federal Agency for Governmental Liaison and Information published information illustrated by concrete examples that regional authorities consider the fact that they were “universally elected” to be a mandate for “despotism, lawlessness, insubordination to the federal authorities and total inaccountability to anyone”. The intrusion of special services witnesses that the intentions of the authorities are serious. At the same time, OG holds that it makes no sense to argue that “Russia is governed extremely badly, the federal authorities do not control regions”, that the majority of provincial bosses live not by the federal laws, but by their own “steppe codes” and do what they will. Still, Moscow has enough leverages to influence governors: federal transfers (no more than ten regions are donors by now), deliveries of oil and gas, electrical energy, and also the prosecutor’s office, special services, and courts which are subordinate to the center. “There won’t be any lack of materials for legal proceedings – there is plenty of them.” The shakiness, according to Putin’s expression, of the state system is explained by the liberties to which regional authorities have got used in Yeltsin’s times: these liberties were “the price the government paid for their agreement to resign themselves to Yeltsin’s presidency”. Yeltsin’s successor, the newspaper holds, is not obliged to follow Yeltsin’s tradition of non-resistance to the evil by violence. “A break with this tradition is the question of the president’s efficiency, but not of a structural reform of the state system,” all the more so since the regional elite, with all its weak points, “is the only serious counterbalance to the federal executive power. As soon as governors are appointed by the Kremlin, this counterbalance will be destroyed.” Still, as we can see, there are champions of strengthening the state power among regional leaders.

There is a “queue of Putin’s assistants” (as the newspaper Vedomosti put it) who wish to make a contribution to his election campaign among the Russian business elite as well. As it is known, the election fund of a presidential candidate must not exceed 300 minimal monthly wages (25.047 billion rubles). The real expenditure on Putin’s election campaign, according to expert estimates, will make about $50 million (Vedomosti points out that it is significantly less than was spent on Yeltsin’s campaign in 1996). Leaders of the Russian business have many times expressed their support for the acting president’s candidacy. Heads of Russia’s two largest companies – Gazprom (Rem Vyakhirev) and Russian Joint Energy Systems (Anatoly Chubais) were included into an initiative group to support Putin at the election. The board of directors of Lukoil and its trade union organizations called on to “shareholders and employees of the company, all workers of the oil and gas industry, all citizens of Russia” to support Putin at the presidential election. However, the newspaper holds that the support of businesspeople will not be limited to statements. It is rumored that the Kremlin officials have drawn up a list of companies to be allowed to bankroll Putin’s campaign. At the beginning, it included 50 “lucky guys”, the newspaper writes, then their number was reduced to 25. As for oligarchs who, as it is known, played the decisive role in Yeltsin’s presidential campaign (and received handsome reward for this in the shape of state credits, purchases of controlling share parcels of oil, gas, TV companies, etc.), their chances are indefinite as yet. However, Vedomosti writes, “it is said that after March 26 lobbyism will disappear”. From this point of view, sensational information about the “aluminum mega-deal”, which placed 70% of Russia’s aluminum industry under the control of the Berezovsky-Abramovich group, can be regarded as an attempt of the influential group to “snatch its portion before the election”. At the same time the newspaper offers another theory concerning the “aluminum transaction”: “The elites are so sure that the current situation will not change that they do not want to postpone important decisions until the election.” As for Putin, in this case he remains true to himself as a “mystery man”: in response to all questions he keeps on stating that he had not known anything until the transaction was concluded.

The vagueness of the image of the main presidential candidate which stays on in spite of all official statements gives the press an opportunity to call this image “virtual”. Nezavisimaya Gazeta cites several statements by the acting president in regards to most urgent Russian problems which contradict each other. For instance, on February 11 in Krasnodar: “The majority of enterprises is in the hands of inefficient proprietors and the state must change this situation.” On February 18 in Irkutsk: “We must avoid the situation when the state first guarantees the right for property and then initiates reconsideration of this right.” On January 18 in Moscow: “The economic policy of the government will be moderately liberal.” On February 8 in Zelenograd: “Russia faces the strategic task of rapid liberalization of the economy.” On one and the same day – February 18 in Irkutsk – first: “Appointing governors from the federal center will not solve the problem of the relations between the center and regions.” And then: “Taking into consideration Russia’s historic development, there was no need to hasten to elect governors.” However, in the opinion of NG, Putin “behaves like an ordinary presidential candidate acting on the principle: “something for these, something for those”.

The newspaper Segodnya remarks ironically: “A threat for the enemy, father for soldiers, protector of widows, orphans and democracy… This is how the acting president appears on TV-screens. You can make your choice either by heart or by reason: the image is impeccable. There is only one weak point – one wrong step can ruin the image of the virtual Putin who has managed to charm everybody.” But people will be disappointed only when the choice is made.

A similar “virtuality” is characteristic of the party of power, Unity, in the opinion of Andrei Kolesnikov, a political observer of Izvestia. Analyzing its peculiarities, Kolesnikov writes: “The party of power has no ideology, and it cannot have such, since its only political mission is to serve as support for the ruling structures. Unity may have any program, it won’ t help it become less virtual…” Still, if there is a virtual party of power, there must be a real one. “It does exist,” Kolesnikov writes. “It consists of people and structures whom Putin trust, on whom he places his hopes. This party is the Federal Security Service. They are interested in predictability, stability and controllability of the party system.”