The concluding phase of the election campaign has been marked by a drop in Acting President Vladimir Putin’s rating. “This was a result of the Chechen war, where the losses among federal forces already number dozens of servicemen per day,” Komsomolskaya Pravda commented. The paper holds that “to all appearances, Mr. Putin should best kiss goodbye his dream of winning the election in the first round”.

The question of whether a second round of voting will be necessary appears to be the main mystery of the election campaign’s last phase. It has immediately been assumed that the apparent necessity of a second round and the drop in Mr. Putin’s popularity rating are in fact just the cunning plans of campaign strategists. Thus, Izvestia notes that the rating of “the publicly beloved candidate” is approaching 50%, and explains this situation as follows: “What is currently happening means that members of Mr. Putin’s campaign team have decided that a second round of voting is necessary. This second round is needed to put some life the somewhat dull electoral show, and to demonstrate that Mr. Putin has in fact won the election not ‘hands-down’ but as a result of a long and hard struggle.”

The press has long been reporting the existence of certain figures ready to go to all lengths to make the front-runner’s victory as difficult as possible. The press believes those people’s wishes to be a reaction to Mr. Putin’s demonstrative refusal to receive financial assistance from all who are so eager to provide him with it. “Crowds of governors, state officials, and business leaders from all over Russia are besieging the Kremlin, Staraya Square, and Yakimanka Street Alexander House, base of the Center for Strategic Development headed by Herman Gref – translator’s note and begging insiders to receive from them organizational or financial aid.”

Since the majority of those begging have already been officially turned down, it is clear that “if the election campaign does not result in unexpected events at the very last moment, then after the election Mr. Putin will be much freer from obligations to sponsors than Boris Yeltsin was four years ago.” It is understood that such a situation cannot possibly suit those who are used to paying in advance – and then having all the right to order whatever they want.

To all appearances, the problem of a second round worries Mr. Putin himself, too. Segodnya reports that the acting president has found an effective electoral move: namely, he has suggested that the Russian electorate “help the state keep election costs down, i.e. elect a new president in the first round.” Thus, Mr. Putin explained, a billion rubles could be saved, “a sum nearly equal to a month’s pension payments for all pensioners in the Moscow Region”. Mr. Putin directly addressed the electorate with this suggestion via a live speech on Mayak Radio, while in Voronezh. However, the paper notes, to attain this noble goal – to save budget funds – Mr. Putin will have to intensify his campaign, for his personal rating has already decreased to 50%.

“Of course, with such an approval rating among the Russian people Mr. Putin has every chance of becoming the new president,” Andrei Kolesnikov writes in the magazine Novoye Vremya, “but that will be the beginning of the end of his high rating.” Mr. Kolesnikov takes the question of a second round to be an indirect indicator of Mr. Putin’s political consistency. “If needed, Mr. Putin’s team will inevitably make amendments to public perceptions of the acting president being invincible. Everybody will instantly start to think about what would have happened if the presidential election had taken place in the summer of 2000, and what would have remained by that time of Mr. Putin’s image of infallible victory.”

Mark Deutsch maintains in Moskovsky Komsomolets that even at this juncture “Mr. Putin’s chances of becoming president are not really so high.” The author refers to some conclusions certain “FSS analysts” have arrived at after studying information (which for some mysterious reasons has not leaked to the press) provided by certain “serious and authoritative polling organizations”.

Upon analyzing that information, the FSS analysts have arrived at the conclusion that “Mr. Putin’s real rating is no greater than half of the figures that are regularly published by the media.” There is nothing strange about this: the acting president (who is at the same time the prime minister) is obviously keeping aloof from the process of settling “this country’s most urgent economic problems”. Mr. Putin does not pay sufficient attention to social services, to those Russians who live beyond or on the brink of the poverty line. In addition, the people are instinctively afraid of a candidate who has made his career in the security services.

On the other hand, Mr. Deutsch continues, even if we agree with the highest rating among those published, namely that by the Nationwide Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (58%), Mr. Putin is still in jeopardy – this time, however, the threat comes from a different direction. Recently, the number of those who doubt whether it is worth voting at all has been steadily growing. “As a result of such a trend, voter turnout is currently expected to total 51%.” If we also take into consideration the inevitable statistical margin of error (approximately 1.5%), it will become clear that “Mr. Putin has approached the critical line beyond which no high ratings are going to help him win”. Meanwhile, Mr. Deutsch notes that under a new law, if voter turnout is insufficient “all the candidates in this race will lose the right to run in a second election”. We should say that all the other threats are simply dwarfed by this one.

Perhaps it was due to this very circumstance that another, very strange campaign under the slogan “Vote against all” has recently been launched within the real election campaign. “To all appearances,” Izvestia writes, “this action was started as the democratic intelligentsia’s fairly sincere protest against an election that actually promises to be unfair and uninteresting. However, now it has been joined by some other forces. What are those forces?” The paper admits the possibility that the call to vote against all candidates is being boosted by Mr. Putin’s supporters, who “are by no means trying to hamper the acting president’s sure win – quite the contrary, they are doing their best to help their own candidate.”

Moskovskie Novosti weekly likewise considers the call to vote against all candidates to be “a special propaganda operation”. The weekly assumes that Mr. Putin’s campaign team is afraid that the election may be declared invalid owing to low turnout; therefore, “as a protest alternative, campaign stragegists are sneakily suggesting to the electorate that they should turn out to vote anyway – if for no other reason then to vote against all candidates.” The acting president’s campaign team is sure that Mr. Putin’s voters will not change their views, but this move will allow him to win the March 26 election.

“In fact, the operation’s end may be considered to have already been attained,” Moskovskie Novosti notes, “People explain to each other in stores and on subway stations that ‘you should at least go and vote against all candidates, or else your ballot will be falsified’.”

Thus, campaign strategists are fighting the threat of a low turnout on the day of the election by all possible means, and simultaneously trying to attach at least some visible gambling spirit to the inert election campaign. Meanwhile, even the press admits that the presidential race is unprecedentedly dull.

“Fundamentally, we will have not even an election, but a referendum, with the only question being: are Russian citizens ready to trust Mr. Putin with their fate?” Igor Bunin, Director of the Center of Political Strategies, states in Argumenty i Fakty weekly. People already know not only who will win the election, but even who will take the second and third prizes. The question that arises in this connection is why all the other candidates are running at all, if the winner is known beforehand. Mr. Bunin holds the opinion that those other candidates have one very specific goal: “Fighting to keep their position in the political arena.” In politics, a refusal to fight means the loss of a politician’s position. This is proved by the fate of Fatherland-All Russia after Yevgeny Primakov refused to run in the election. Fatherland-All Russia, which only recently was claiming the role of the power party, is now nearly forgotten as a political force. Mr. Bunin believes that a similar situation is now observable in the Union of Right Forces – not having nominated its own presidential candidate, the movement is about to fall apart, “because for any party with any self-respect, it is essential to participate in every election.” All current presidential candidates realize this fact. Gennady Zyuganov, whose personal rating is fairly respectable, can hope for the title of “loyal opposition”. Grigory Yavlinsky will strengthen his party’s position by running in the presidential race. Konstantin Titov, whose term as Samara governor is drawing to a close, is hoping to promote himself to the federal level. Mr. Bunin assumes that Mr. Dzhabrailov and Mr. Skuratov will take advantage of the election campaign as protection from legal prosecution. Ms. Pamfilova, Mr. Savostianov, and Mr. Govorukhin are trying to increase their non-existent political ratings. As for Mr. Podberyozkin and Mr. Tuleev, they are working in Mr. Putin’s interests by bringing parts of Mr. Zyuganov’s electorate over to their side. Thus, each candidate is pursuing their own specific goal.

Nevertheless, Dengy magazine reports that eight out of the 12 candidates in the race will be affected by the provision that their state-supplied campaign funds must be repaid to the Central Election Commission (if a candidate fails to get 3% of votes). The sum involved is 400,000 rubles per candidate.

The magazine conventionally divides the candidates for whom this threat is real into two categories – “the poor” and “the rich”. The former prefer not to spend the money granted by the Central Election Commission, since “those sums are to be repaid anyway”, and are mainly counting on their own resources and “scanty donations by voters with extravagant tastes”. Therefore, the magazine states, some candidates have turned out to be so thrifty that their campaigns are very inconspicuous. For instance, Emma Pamfilova is using only free TV air-time; she has neither TV ads, nor billboards, nor leaflets or brochures. The 400,000 rubles granted by the Central Election Commission is lying intact in Ms. Pamfilova’s account. Yevgeny Savostianov’s account contains a slightly greater sum – 542,000 rubles. Mr. Savostianov also uses exclusively free TV air-time, does not spend money on journeys to Russian provinces, and meets only with working collectives of Moscow-based enterprises, and only when invited by those enterprises’ administrators.

Stanislav Govorukhin’s campaign is based on a similar scenario. Mr Govorukhin has 548,000 rubles in his account.

The campaign fund of Yury Skuratov is smaller still, only 472,000 rubles, of which sum 60,000 rubles has already been spent (according to the magazine’s story, on low-budget TV ads). No other campaign publicity by Mr. Skuratov has been reported; “He is unlikely to overestimate his own popularity with the electorate, and is probably resigned to the thought that the money will have to be returned to the Central Election Commission.”

Against this low-budget background, the campaign fund of Alexei Podberyozkin, the leader of the Spiritual Heritage movement, appears fairly decent – 3,773,440 rubles, of which sum over 3 million rubles has already been spent on campaign publicity. Representatives of Mr. Podberyozkin’s campaign team stress that this campaign’s goal is not so much to promote the presidential candidate as it is to “promote Spiritual Heritage in general”. “Thus, the campaign team apparently does not set itself the goal of winning 3% of voters over to its candidate’s side,” the magazine concludes. At the same time, Mr. Podberyozkin’s team disagrees with the requirement to return 400,000 rubles to the Central Election Commission. “As it turns out, by no means all presidential candidates fully realize the share of their financial obligations in case of defeat in the election,” the magazine notes.

As for the “rich” candidates such as Umar Dzhabrailov, Aman Tuleev, and Konstantin Titov, they are likely to score under 3% “with much greater sums of money spent on campaign publicity”. Dengy states that the sources of financial assistance to those candidates are evident to all. “In short, participation in the presidential election is a brilliant opportunity for self-promotion. And a good campaign is always worth the money,” the magazine concludes.

As far as Mr. Zyuganov (predicted to take second place) is concerned, Vedomosti reports that by the beginning of March his account contained over 17 million rubles (approximately $600,000). Under the electoral law, each candidate has the right to spend about 26 million rubles on campaign publicity. On the other hand, the paper believes that Mr. Zyuganov’s real expenditures on the election campaign will be much higher. The CPRF leader will receive the balance primarily from “his own business friends”, not from unfamiliar corporations counting on future Communist lobbying for their interests in Parliament. Among Mr. Zyuganov’s “own business friends” are Deputy Duma Chairman Gennady Semigin, a member of the Russian Agrarian Party and the initiator of the creation of the Russian Financial Industrial Group (which incorporates several dozen private-sector companies, banks, and corporations), head of the Rosagropromstroi corporation Viktor Vidmanov, Igor Annensky, Deputy General Director of the Presnensky Business Center Ltd., and other prominent entrepreneurs. On the other hand, Mikhail Delyagin, the head of the Institute of Globalization Issues, believes that the CPRF will have no problem attracting funds from other large Russian companies, “Large businesses never put all their eggs in one basket during election campaigns.”

The most interesting thing, however, is that in Vladimir Semago’s view, “Even business leaders close to the Kremlin and structures owned by them may well support Mr. Zyuganov financially, taking into account that after his prospective victory in the presidential election Mr. Putin is planning to create a two-party political system consisting of Unity and the CPRF.” The possibility cannot be ruled out that Boris Berezovsky, “who, during the parliamentary crisis, demonstrated readiness to cooperate with the Communist Party which he had earlier demanded to ban,” may lend Mr. Zyuganov a helping hand.

We should note in this connection that Mr. Berezovsky, this “political perpetual motion machine”, keeps attracting attention from media of different political views. Thus, Argumenty i Fakty weekly reports in its latest issue that it was none other than the far-sighted tycoon who financed the printing of Mr. Putin’s book, “In the First Person”, recently published by Vagrius publishing house. “A similar question-and-answer book was published for Mr. Yeltsin in 1996,” the weekly recalls.

At the same time, the nationalist paper Zavtra states that Mr. Berezovsky has resolved his differences with tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, and the two oligarchs are currently busy trying to “do their best to prevent Mr. Putin from winning in the first round.” This task is quite achievable for the tycoons because, in the past several days the acting president has “committed a number of gross errors”, such as “his NATO-related statement, an invitation to Blair and Wolfensohn to visit St. Petersburg, the continuation of the Babitsky case, and the increasing number of casualties among federal troops in Chechnya”. Zavtra, in turn, believes that “Mr. Putin’s popularity could be destroyed within a day by a coordinated infusion of media reports about the explosions of apartment blocks in Russian cities and the FSS allegedly having something to do with them.”

On the other hand, it is so far too early to speak about any radical change in the current situation. However, Novaya Gazeta, for instance, is engaged in rather harsh criticism of Mr. Putin and his election campaign. And the recent scandal, when layout files for one of the paper’s issues (most of which was devoted to intrigues in the election campaign) disappeared from the editor’s server, attracted everybody’s attention. The main materials unmasking the acting president’s alleged shady affairs were printed eventually. One of them is dedicated to the renting of office space in Alexander House by Mr. Putin’s campaign team and Mr. Gref’s Center for Strategic Development. The paper believes that Alexander House “should long have been handed over to depositors of the bankrupt SBS-Agro bank”. So it turns out, the paper continues, that Mr. Putin “is going to build a new, fair society but in his striving for power uses old methods, by using a building concealed from deceived creditors.” In addition, the paper has calculated that according to the most modest estimates, the rental of space in a building of this class must cost no less than 25 million rubles, which constitutes nearly the entire electoral fund. “However, apart from this item of expenditure, there are also books, travel, conferences, wages for members of the campaign team, etc.” The paper believes that the matter involves a violation of electoral law according to one of the following two variants: either the front-runner’s election campaign is being subsidized by shady sources, or the so-called “administrative resource” is being used here. In the case with Alexander Smolensky, the former owner (via third-party companies) of Alexander House, this scheme looks like: “Mr. Smolensky, we like your building. So you should relocate, and in exchange we will arrange advantages for you when declaring SBS-Agro bankrupt. And if you refuse to relocate, well, then we will remember about the legal proceedings Mr. Primakov once instituted against you.” In either case, the paper believes, those guilty should be banned from running in the presidential race, otherwise “it will be inappropriate to speak about ‘a clean and fair election’. ”

It is still unknown whether Mr. Putin’s campaign team has actually taken advantage of the “administrative resource”. However, it has no doubt had such an opportunity more than once. On the eve of the presidential election the Russian powers-that-be have become “possessed by administrative excitement”, as Izvestia puts it.

“Our nomenklatura’s love is unsurpassed in its selflessness,” Izvestia writes, “This love makes one completely lose his mind and stop sparing his money on it.” It is absolutely impossible to somehow curb this violent love: “The one in love cannot take his eyes off the object of his passion, and hangs on every word of the latter: What movement! What speech! What clever jokes!” All the existing organizations have already hastened to announce their “universal democratic support” for Mr. Putin. In addition, “By now nearly half of the presidential candidates are already dedicating part of their campaigning time to ecstatic revelations about the joy with which they would refuse to run in a would-be second round, in favor of Mr. Putin.” On the other hand, none of them, with a single exception, will have an opportunity of making such a fine gesture. And even that single exception – Mr. Zyuganov – “is trying to emphasize, with whatever pride he can demonstrate, his right to lose” and doing all that is in his power to avoid “taking the name of Mr. Putin in vain, let alone criticizing him”. Mr. Zyuganov prefers to denounce Mr. Yeltsin and his “inner circle”, or the “regime” in general.

In such a situation, “the most important skill to be mastered by any Russian national leader is not to be too overcome with this universal love,” the paper warns.

Kommersant informs its readers that now, ten days prior to the election, the Union of Right Forces has decided to endorse Mr. Putin; and notes that Anatoly Chubais already stated before the parliamentary election that “Mr. Putin is our candidate”. At that time, the paper states, the right-wing forces supported Mr. Putin “in advance, in hope that the latter would subsequently decide to conduct liberal reforms”.

Now Mr. Chubais has confessed that the Union of Right Forces bases its support for Mr. Putin “not even on hope, but on intuition”. On the other hand, there are several “dissidents” among the right-wing activists, such as Irina Khakamada, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Yushenkov, and Konstantin Titov, the latter himself being a presidential candidate. Mr. Titov explains his allies’ refusal to support his own candidacy by the fact that the Union of Right Forces “is used to staking its all on the favorites”.

Kommersant comments from the viewpoint of pragmatic interests on Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s decision to endorse the candidacy of Mr. Putin (Mr. Luzhkov made his decision one day after the Union of Right Forces made its decision). “Apparently, Mr. Luzhkov reasoned that it is better to surrender to Mr. Putin today and retain his post of Moscow mayor than find himself maybe even in prison tomorrow.” According to the paper, the Kremlin’s mediators who negotiated with Mr. Luzhkov “openly threatened him with legal persecution for economic misappropriations if he demonstrated lack of political loyalty.”

Segodnya analyzes the composition of Mr. Putin’s “inner circle” and arrives at the conclusion that his closest supporters are mainly state officials, business leaders, and military chiefs; the number of cultural workers and representatives of various social organizations in the acting president’s milieu is quite insignificant. “Tell me who your confidants are, and I will tell you who is going to win the election,” the paper says.

It is also important which population segment a candidate’s campaign is concentrating its efforts on. Izvestia gives the following definition of the average person at whom Mr. Putin’s TV ads are pitched: “An uneducated housewife in her sixties.” The political strategists are counting on the concept that “in our matriarchal country it is women who decide whom their families will vote for, and whether or not they will go to vote at all. So, the Central Election Commission is addressing women: vote with your hearts, dear women!”

That was exactly the idea on which the past parliamentary campaign was built. That time, this strategy ensured a high voter turnout, and Mr. Putin’s team’s success in the December parliamentary election. However, this time the situation is absolutely different, the paper maintains.