The presidential election: desperately seeking a sparring partner for Putin


“Russian voters have chosen Putin over democracy,” said “Express” (France) in the wake of Russia’s parliamentary elections. A translation of the “Express” article was published in Kommersant-Vlast magazine.

The press will be full of analysis and heated disputes for some time on the topic of why the democratic parties lost the elections. So far, articles in various publications are only supplementing each other, on the principle of “I cannot keep silent!”

Here, for example, is a quote from Novoe Vremya magazine which essentially adds some detail to that aphoristic observation from “Express.”

Novoe Vremya expresses regret: “This is an entire society which has been prepared to enter into a fictitious marriage in return for a jar of caviar, or murder each other in queues in return for a winter coat, or work nights to obtain furniture from Romania – but it has never sought to gain freedom with a human face. The people have always been ready to smash and loot and take things away, as they did in 1917 – which is why Russia’s rulers have not given the people free rein.”

“We won’t even be able to catch up with Portugal!” Novoe Vremya predicts in another article. “The current generation of post-Soviet people will never live under capitalism!”

A lack of normal points of reference is to blame for that. Novoe Vremya asks: “Why has shock therapy worked in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, but not here? Because over there they had a consensus; they had no doubts about where they were going. Those countries saw themselves as a part of Europe which had been temporarily occupied by Soviet communism.”

Having freed themselves from the clutches of communism, the nations of Eastern Europe moved towards Europe, and now there is no doubt about their future. Meanwhile, Russia still can’t make up its mind. Debates about “Russia’s special path” continue: “Europe seems small and uninteresting to us. We want Eurasia – though no one is explaining what that might mean in practice.” Russian society is still nostalgic for “great power” status, allegedly destroyed by “the CIA and its hirelings.”

As a result, “the structural reforms have bogged down half-way, and we are still milling around on the red line.”

Philosophically, Novoe Vremya observes that election results such as these might even be for the best. Now, with no resistance from parliament, the president will be the complete master of the country. Essentially, now that “his hands are fully untied, now that he can pass any laws and amend the Constitution at will, he will encounter no obstacles in completing the reforms.”

Or rather, only one obstacle: the “dear voters.” “The president will have to conceal his covert liberalism even more thoroughly than before – because the people are opposed to it, and Putin is a democrat, after all.”

All the same, there is no real reason for concern about how Vladimir Putin is getting along with the people of Russia. That much is clear from his question-and-answer session last week, broadcast live by two state-controlled television networks. He’s doing fine.

The Vedomosti newspaper observes: “During the year since his last national interview, Putin has completed his transformation into a Gulliver among political pygmies.”

Indeed, Russia no longer has any opposition at all – whether oligarchic, right-wing, or left-wing. Vedomosti notes: “The president has absolute power, and in his December 18 interview he spoke to the people more freely than ever before.”

There was no game-playing in this interview, and no promises that can’t be kept. As Vedomosti points out, Putin has “once again shown himself to be more liberal than the country he has been given to rule: Russia’s ‘chief European,’ so to speak.”

Rossiiskaya Gazeta described Putin’s interview as follows: “In this year’s broadcast, Vladimir Putin played only one role: the calm president of a perfectly prosperous country. A country that has its problems, of course, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

Vedomosti cites a fairly striking example. When a coal-miner from the Kemerovo region asked the president about housing problems, Putin explained that Russian banks are practically ready to provide the public with mortgage loan services. The only hitch in implementing a mortgage system is that it’s currently illegal to evict people who fall behind on their payments. However, hopefully the new Duma will resolve this problem soon.

Vedomosti notes: “If Boris Yeltsin had said this four years ago, a wave of protest rallies would have swept the nation: ‘Hands off our apartments!’ But the people are prepared to listen to far less pleasant news from Putin.” And the president knows it. It’s a useful thing to know, especially in the lead-up to a presidential election campaign.

Yet there are some problems with that campaign; fairly serious problems.

On the one hand, everything seems to be going as expected. As the Vremya Novostei newspaper reports, 27 minutes into his live interview, the president himself announced his intention to run for reelection.

Vremya Novostei notes: “This announcement may be considered the start of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign – as well as its successful conclusion.” That’s because the only way the incumbent can fail to win this election is by not running at all.

However, in order for this to be a real election, and for the mandate it confers to be fully legitimate (this includes legitimacy for the nit-picking West, which has already described our parliamentary elections as “free, but not fair”), there has to be some real political competition. So far, things aren’t going too well in that area.

For some time, there has been a shortage of challengers for Putin.

The Kremlin’s stage-managers have tried too hard: in the wake of the parliamentary elections, when all available resources were brought into play to ensure an undisputed victory for United Russia, the leaders of both wings of the opposition have deliberately withdrawn into the shadows.

In his dialogue with voters (49 minutes into his live interview, says Vremya Novostei), Vladimir Putin tried in vain to call those unreasonable party leaders to order.

They remained unmoved by the president’s stern words: “In my view, boycotting any election is a stupid and harmful idea. That’s because it disrupts – it might disrupt – normal life in Russia, both politics and the economy. It could damage the economy. It’s a cowardly position, I think. It would be far more proper – even for those forces which believe they don’t stand a chance (although I believe there is always a chance) – it would be much more honest, proper, and statesmanlike of them to take a stand and fight, using the platform of the campaign to defend their beliefs.”

Nothing helped: the Yabloko party congress last weekend resolved not to field a candidate at all. Yabloko leader Grigori Yavlinsky explained that his party believes this cannot possibly be a “free, equal, politically competitive election” (quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta). For Yabloko, it is “a matter of principle” not to take part in a performance which is an imitation of democracy.

What’s more, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, the Yabloko congress resolved not to endorse Vladimir Putin. Now Yabloko says it expects the Union of Right Forces (URF) to be “equally resolute.”

This provided an unexpected rebuttal to fears among the URF that Yabloko might side with the Kremlin. Several papers, including Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reported last week that Yavlinksy had visited the Kremlin for talks and received some “interesting offers.” Yabloko denied these rumors as hard as it could; but suspicions lingered, of course. They were only dispelled by the tough wording of the final document issued by the Yabloko congress.

Gazeta cites the Yabloko congress resolution: “The recent parliamentary campaign showed that elections have been transformed into a farce – due to unlimited use of administrative resources and widespread electoral fraud. Under the circumstances, it is clear that the upcoming presidential election cannot possibly be free, honest, fair, or equal.”

As Vladimir Lukin said: “Speaking out ought to be better than keeping silent. If it’s not, then what’s the point in speaking?”

Meanwhile, the Communists scared the Kremlin for a while by saying that “the Party may decide to boycott the presidential election,” thus reducing voter turnout – but they changed their minds fairly quickly. Early this week, the papers reported that the Communist Party (CPRF) has started showing some presidential aspirations.

However, this time the Communist candidate is likely to be someone other than the usual Gennadi Zyuganov. As Gazeta observes, the CPRF leader has been shaken by the party’s failure in the parliamentary elections. Yet a good position doesn’t remain empty for long.

According to Gazeta, the CPRF may well nominate a candidate from outside: someone who is not a Communist, but still a leftist. Such a person has already been found: Valery Melnikov, a former miner and labor union leader who has recently been elected mayor of Norilsk.

Melnikov himself is willing. However, there are also others seeking to become the Communist candidate: for example, there is Tatiana Astrakhankina, CPRF Central Committee secretary for social affairs, who says: “The Tver regional party committee will support me.”

The most disagreeable scenario for Gennadi Zyuganov would be the nomination of his main opponent, Gennadi Semigin – who doesn’t deny that he has already launched his presidential campaign.

The Vedomosti newspaper reports that Semigin has the support of Valentin Kuptsov, first deputy secretary of the CPRF Central Committee, and other CPRF functionaries. Most importantly, Semigin has many supporters among regional branch leaders; therefore, as Vedomosti reports, he hopes to replace Zyuganov as party leader in the event that the party congress scheduled for December 27 confirms him as the CPRF presidential candidate.

Profil magazine says Semigin has only said what many CPRF functionaries were thinking: “They would prefer to get rid of their never-changing leader, who is associated with the Duma campaign failure – and they would like to give their own careers a boost at the same time.” The outlook for Zyuganov is clearly unenviable.

According to the Versiya weekly, many fairly influential CPRF activists don’t blame the current leader alone for the party’s defeat at the parliamentary elections: they also blame Viktor Vidmanov, the party treasurer.

Versiya is generous in sharing not only the rumors currently circulating on the left, but some specific figures as well.

Versiya reports: “Rumor has it that Zyuganov and Vidmanov made over $30 million by selling safe places on the party’s electoral lists during the campaign. The two of them are said to have ensured the election of around 15 candidates at a price of $1.5 million each, plus one more candidate, also for a very large sum of money.”

Actually, says Versiya, Zyuganov’s party colleagues don’t blame him for selling places on the lists; what they object to is the fact that no more than $4-5 million of the proceeds was spent on the election campaign, with regional party branches being the most deprived.

What’s more, Versiya has heard that Zyuganov is now facing “extremely strong pressure” from the Kremlin to sort out the intra-party conflicts and run for president in his traditional role of the incumbent’s sparring partner. The Kremlin has chosen to exert pressure on Zyuganov via Vidmanov and his Rosagropromstroi corporation.

An anonymous CPRF source told Versiya: “Some senior Kremlin officials are openly saying that if Zyuganov doesn’t agree, he and his Vidmanov will face criminal charges.”

All the same, it’s not surprising to see some publications claiming that Zyuganov has firmly decided not to run for president, while other insist that no final decision has yet been made.

According to Vedomosti, in the event that the Communists do decide to stay out of the race, the Motherland bloc (Rodina) will have a reserve presidential candidate ready.

The price of this service is obvious: as Novye Izvestia puts it, Sergei Glaziev has been “glancing to the left” for a long time; he is yet another claimant to Zyuganov’s place as CPRF leader.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, says Glaziev basically isn’t concealing his plans to consolidate “moderate left-wing forces” around himself: “And it can’t be ruled out that events will develop precisely in accordance with this kind of scenario.”

Well-known political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, general director of the National Strategy Council, told Novye Izvestia: “Mr. Glaziev has already realized that he can’t achieve very much in Motherland, since that faction’s real masters are Dmitri Rogozin and Yuri Skokov.”

However, Belkovsky predicts that Glaziev is unlikely to go in for an open confrontation with his Motherland colleagues before the presidential election: “Moving to the left before March 14 could provoke his nomination as a presidential candidate – and Glaziev isn’t ready for that yet.”

Thus, the statements of Motherland leaders remain rather vague: “We shall definitely be taking part in the presidential election, in some way.”

After taking a decent interval of time for consideration and doubts, LDPR leader Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky is also ready for action once more.

However, despite Zhirinovsky’s public statements describing Putin as a “strong candidate” who will not require a second round of voting, the Kremlin is still somewhat cautious about Zhirinovsky. As Stanislav Belkovsky told Vedomosti, this is because Zhirinovsky’s voters “overlap with Putin’s voters to some extent.”

What’s more, as well-known politician Vyacheslav Igrunov said in an interview with Russkii Kurier, there are fears that a Putin-Zhirinovsky contest “would look like a clown show.”

Sergei Markov, head of the Political Studies Institute, says that as a “play rival,” Zhirinovsky would still be able to “soak up the protest vote,” given the clearly strengthening trend towards voting against the current regime. Zhirinovsky could get quite a few votes: “Not enough to win, but he would pick up a solid percentage – and that doesn’t suit the Kremlin at all.”

Of course, there is yet another candidate “for popular consumption” – Vladimir Bryntsalov, owner of the Ferein plant. But this would really be a last resort (despite Mr. Bryntsalov’s wealth): in 1996, he finished last in a field of 11 candidates, with 0.16% of the vote. It was a marvelous advertising opportunity for his business.

In short, the Kremlin is very much in need of a solid democratic candidate. However, as Igrunov puts it, this has to be “a candidate who wouldn’t so much oppose the president as complement him, especially in the areas Putin still doesn’t have under control.”

Meanwhile, Sergei Markov told Russkii Kurier that in his view, the Kremlin may come to an agreement with the right-wing opposition fairly quickly – with the URF, at least: “The URF is much more of a political opportunist that Yabloko, which does have a certain concentration of ideas and ideals.”

However, many observers have no doubt that the presidential election will only finish the job of smashing “the fragments of the democratic parties,” as Profil magazine puts it.

Vyacheslav Igrunov says, rather harshly, that “the situation in which both Yabloko and the URF have found themselves in the lead-up to the presidential election will end in utter disgrace for them. Many of them understand this, so they don’t want to take part in the presidential campaign.”

All the same, Moskovskie Novosti observer Valery Vyzhutovich blames the democratic party leaders directly for the fact that the liberal electorate has been left without its own presidential candidate, “due to the whims of party leaders, still thinking only of themselves.”

Vyzhutovich says: “Yes, such a candidate – like any other candidate – couldn’t have challenged Putin. But society had a right to expect at least a demonstrative performance.”

According to Vyzhutovich, fielding a right-wing candidate would by no means have been purely a formality, an action based on circumstances: “We needed to show that Russia is not entirely populated by supporters of bureaucratic mediocrity or those inspired by national-socialist ranting. We needed to show that there are others in Russia as well, people whose social demands could have been expressed by Yavlinsky, Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Fedorov – any symbolic figure, regardless of their approval rating.” Yet the democratic parties have avoided this task, says Vyzhutovich bitterly.

And yet – who knows? In her first interview since the Duma elections, URF co-leader Irina Khakamada told Gazeta, with some anguish: “We shouldn’t get stuck on the idea that we’re idiots.” In Khakamada’s view, the factors to blame for the URF’s defeat were an ineffective campaign and its organizers (especially campaign manager Alfred Koch), as well as “unfair and very harsh competition.” And voters, of course: “The people, too. Pardon me for saying this, but even those who are well-off and making a good living are confused about these issues – they still lack a clear understanding of the role of government in society.”

Therefore, Khakamada considers it essential for the democratic parties to field a single candidate.

Khakamada said the party leaders ought to be replaced as well, of course, but not immediately: “We shouldn’t have all of them leaving at once, leaving a barren field behind them, without growing anything new… It’s essential to promote and train some new people.”

However, all this clearly requires time; and the right-wing parties are unlikely to find any kind of Solomon’s decision in the limited time remaining before the presidential campaign.

After all, as Russkii Kurier notes, the Kremlin “has very little time left to create at least the appearance of decency in the presidential election.”