January 28 was the deadline for submitting signature lists to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). There are now seven presidential candidates; two of them, Oleg Malyshkin and Nikolai Kharitonov, have already been registered.

Two candidates have bowed out of the race, under different (but highly honorable) pretexts.

Kommersant-Vlast magazine reports that entrepreneur Vladimir Bryntsalov, a former Duma member, phoned the CEC to say that he “is a supporter of the president and does not wish to distract public attention towards himself.” Most likely, the amount of media attention Bryntsalov has already received, as someone running for president a second time, has been quite enough for his PR purposes.

The other candidate to withdraw was Anzori Aksentiev-Kikalishvili, an entrepreneur from Kaliningrad. He even collected 3 million signatures, apparently – but nevertheless announced his withdrawal “in protest against the actions of the Lithuanian government and the information embargo in the Russian media.” Aksentiev-Kikalishvili told Kommersant-Vlast that on January 23 he had “made a strong protest” against Lithuania’s decision to deny him transit across its territory for a rail journey to Kaliningrad. However, not a single television channel in Russia gave this important event any coverage. In addition to accusing Lithuania of “crude interference in Russia’s domestic affairs,” Aksentiev-Kikalishvili reprimanded the Russian media, saying they are “taking orders from the Lithuanian special services.”

In conclusion, Aksentiev-Kikalishvili ominously promised that “his presidential cycle will come in 2008.”

In a biting comment, Kommersant-Vlast says this action by Aksentiev-Kikalishvili sets a dangerous precedent: “After all, his example may be followed by the other presidential candidates, all of whom are bound to have similarly burning grievances against some treacherous foreigners.”

Indeed, it would be rather appropriate if Sergei Glaziev withdrew from the race in protest at Washington’s support for Russian oligarchs. Agrarian Nikolai Kharitonov might take offense at rising imports of American poultry meat into Russia. Oleg Malyshkin could demand the immediate release of Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s best friend. Irina Khakamada could make her participation in the presidential election conditional on Japan dropping its claims to Russian territory. This list could go on and on – right up to Sergei Mironov acting in defense of “innocent Russian birds recently accused by Taiwan of spreading poultry flu.”

And what kind of election would it be after all that, asks Kommersant-Vlast? “It’s just as well that Vladimir Putin, at least, is on friendly terms with foreigners and won’t withdraw from the election under any circumstances.”

Meanwhile, the incumbent and favorite was officially registered by the CEC on Monday, February 2.

Predictably, the CEC had no fault to find with his signature lists: when a sample of the 2,499,937 signatures was checked, only 1.16% turned out to be questionable.

Oleg Kutafin, head of Putin’s voter initiative group and rector of the Moscow State Law Academy, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that this percentage was even lower than in the 2000 election (1.48%). Kutafin said: “We have improved our performance. It’s very painstaking, difficult work. But we did collect almost 8 million signatures, so we had plenty to choose from.” Media reports point out that this number of signatures is an all-time record for any candidate.

The voter initiative group’s task is now complete; from now on, Putin’s campaign will be handled by his campaign office.

Meanwhile, as the Moskovskie Novosti weekly reports, CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov felt the need to have a kind of “open day” at the CEC, during which he explained in detail how signature verification is done.

He told the media that “strictly in accordance with the law, around a hundred experienced staff work in two shifts to carefully examine signature lists.” According to the CEC, there can be up to 31 signs of incorrect documentation. Signature lists ought to include personal passport data for each signatory, as well as for the signature-collector. Each signature list also has to be signed off by an authorized representative of the candidate: “No anonymity.”

Of course, the press couldn’t resist making some biting comments about this whole titanic effort.

In the Versiya weekly, Leonid Radzikhovsky says that no fewer than 15 million signatures were “dumped” on the CEC. “At least 2 million, with plenty of padding, for Putin, Rybkin, Mironov, Khakamada, and Glaziev.” Note that Russia has 140 million citizens, around 80 million of whom are eligible to vote; so it would appear that one-fifth of eligible voters contributed signatures. “A question for the reader: did you sign? Did anyone you know sign? Did you see any signature-collectors at all?” It’s an interesting question, says Radzikhovsky: “Empirical evidence suggests that something fishy is going on here.”

That’s with the exception of signatures collected for Putin, of course; Radzikhovksy adds that these were collected “more or less honestly.”

Oleg Kutafin confirms this in his comments to Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “While any other candidate might break some rule or other, the incumbent president cannot break any rules – this is a very responsible matter, you understand. That’s why we tried to do everything in our power.”

Actually, says Alexander Veshnyakov in his comments to Moskovskie Novosti, if any doubts do arise, the CEC may call in some handwriting experts, or check passport data via the passport and visa authorities; and if any fraud is discovered, signature-collectors can be prosecuted under Article 142 of the Crime Code.

Then again, the verifiers are working selectively – the law allows them to limit checking to only 600,000 signature lists. If over 20% are questionable, a further 100,000 must be checked. These are formidable figures.

Actually, according to Profil magazine, it’s entirely possible to predict which candidates will be “taken out.”

Profil predicts that Ivan Rybkin is very likely to be denied registration. Profil says: “The Russian president’s years of strenuous efforts to purge ‘the spirit of Berezovsky’ from Russian politics make it impossible for a protege of the London-based political emigre to be in the presidential race.” Profil even suggests that it might be a good “technique” for the Kremlin to register Rybkin anyway and let him get 0.5% of the vote, “thereby demonstrating for all to see that Boris Berezovsky no longer has any influence.” However, Profil acknowledges that such a move would probably be too sophisticated for Russia’s present leadership.

Meanwhile, some of the papers are linking Berezovsky’s name with a different candidate: Irina Khakamada, former co-leader of the Union of Right Forces (URF).

On the one hand, says the Versiya weekly, there are rumors that Khakamada is among the campaign projects of Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. Moreover, it is said she only agreed to run after the presidential administration granted her request for $2.5 million for collecting signatures.

It is known that the presence of Khakamada and Glaziev in the election is linked with a confrontation between two Kremlin factions. One of them, described by Versiya as the “Kremlin old guard PR people,” is led by Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky. The other – which is essentially the president’s campaign team – is led by Dmitri Kozak. This second group is considered to be “pro-St. Petersburg.”

Differences between these factions involve matters of principle as well as personal issues, says Versiya: “While Surkov and his team are trying to change the situation taking shape in the presidential campaign, aiming to maximize the diversity of candidates and ensure a ‘quality victory’ for Putin, the St. Petersburg group fears this could lead to the incumbent being unable to win this election convincingly without a second round of voting.”

According to Versiya, Khakamada’s unexpected accusations against the authorities in connection with the Moscow theater hostage-taking might have been meant to attract the attention of the media and voters by harsh criticism of the Kremlin. Another motive might have been to dispel suspicions that the Kremlin team had brought Khakamada into the campaign solely in order to add some variety to the menu of candidates.

Versiya even illustrates this reasoning with a quote from Khakamada’s BBC interview: she said boycotting the election is pointless, since “imitation democracy is still democracy.”

Of course, says Versiya, this whole intrigue couldn’t fail to raise tension within the president’s inner circle. And of course, there has been no avoiding Boris Berezovsky, described by Versiya as “the one who really ordered this performance.” According to Alexander Vybornoi, author of the Versiya article, in this situation Berezovsky “is hoping that the St. Petersburg people will crack and use force against undesirable candidates, which would have an extremely bad impact on the president’s image.”

What’s more, says Versiya, the “Kremlin theory” and the “oligarch theory” regarding Khakamada’s presence in the presidential race are by no means mutually exclusive.

As for Vyacheslav Surkov, he is rumored to be winding up his career as a political manager and returning to business: “In this context, his final maneuver with Khakamada could amount to slamming the door behind him.”

Meanwhile, Khakamada’s accusations against the regime have received an ambivalent response from liberal publications as well.

Novoe Vremya magazine says: “Khakamada, who was present at the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking – and undoubtedly displayed self-possession and strength of character – may have her reasons for considering the authorities, including the president, responsible for the tragic outcome of those events. But it’s one thing for an ordinary citizen to make such allegations; it’s quite another for a politician to do so – a politician who aspires to be this campaign’s only real, consistent opponent not only of the regime as such, but also the system which the current president has created and of which he is a product.”

In any event, according to Novoe Vremya, Khakamada the right-wing candidate should first of all “acknowledge the minor detail that the URF – with all of its co-leaders bearing responsibility – started by helping this regime to establish itself, and only started talking about the regime’s cynical attitude to the citizenry when an election came along.”

What’s more, as Novoe Vremya points out, the presidential election offers a unique opportunity for the liberals to speak out and be heard. “No one is venturing to predict what the situation will be like at the next presidential election, but that opportunity is most unlikely to increase by then.”

Therefore, the voters who supported the URF in the Duma elections (2 million of them, according to official data), as well as people who carelessly ignored those elections but still think of themselves as supporters of the liberals, aren’t very interested in emotional outbursts directed against the regime. Most of all, what they want to hear is “a well-founded explanation of what they should do now, and how they’re meant to live with this regime which is steadily divesting itself of the unnecessary fripperies of democracy.”

Overall, says Novoe Vremya, there’s no point in presenting any disclosures about the regime: “For those who dare to think, the regime’s actions speak for themselves.”

However, for “those who consider themselves liberals,” it is an entirely worthy task to explain the essential nature of this regime, and its genesis; most importantly, to describe “how the Putin regime is doomed to lead Russia onto yet another garbage heap of history over the next few years.”

But this task is not yet being addressed, says Novoe Vremya. And even if the situation is subsequently corrected, that won’t change things: “In history, it is frequently the case that one word spoken first is worth more than a hundred words spoken afterwards.” Yet the first word spoken has boiled down to “the pathos and hysteria of Dictatorship Shall Not Pass!” – the conclusion to Irina Khakamada’s famous open letter to “Russian citizens who have suffered from state terrorism.”

In general, according to Novoe Vremya, thus far Khakamada has only added to “the farcical overtones in the presidential campaign, somewhat artistically provided by Zhirinovsky.”

Actually, the current election campaign has an over-abundance of such decorators. Yet again, Kommersant-Vlast has nominated Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov as the hero of its “Putinmania” column: Mironov is managing to be a fervent supporter of the incumbent and his campaign rival at the same time. When journalists asked whom he supports in the presidential race, and whom he is fighting, Mironov candidly replied that he supports Vladimir Putin and considers his opponents to be “the many misfortunes and problems confronting the citizens of Russia.” As proof of his bias, Mironov has once again proposed extending the president’s term in office to five years.

Ordinary voters are also displaying their preference for the incumbent in all sorts of ways: according to a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), 88% of respondents are sure Vladimir Putin will win the election in March. Presumably, the remaining 12% just couldn’t be bothered to answer such an obvious question.

In the meantime, according to the Vremya Novostei newspaper, there’s at least one person in Russia who is not convinced that Putin’s victory is inevitable: Sergei Glaziev.

Glaziev, co-leader of the Motherland bloc (Rodina), is considered the favorite in this election’s main contest: the battle for second place. Thus far, according to FOM polls, 20% of respondents believe Glaziev will come second. According to Vremya Novostei, analysts predict Glaziev will get 10-15% of the vote. But Glaziev himself is apparently counting on an even better result.

Moreover, as Vremya Novostei notes, it’s hard to predict how Communist Party (CPRF) and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) voters will behave in this election: “These people aren’t likely to turn out to vote for the sake of Oleg Malyshkin or Nikolai Kharitonov.”

In fact, according to Vremya Novostei, Glaziev is probably thinking seriously about the election of 2008, bearing in mind that “a decent result this spring could be the first step to his election campaign four years from now.”

In an extensive interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Sergei Glaziev grandly announced that he intends to “change the state’s inertial and irresponsible policies, and change them right now.”

If these policies are continued for another four years, says Glaziev, “we’ll lose the majority of knowledge-intensive industries, and a considerable part of our higher education system, and then we’ll have no resources for recovery.”

Glaziev describes his policy priority as creating a “socially responsible state.” And in order to change state policy in this area, he explains, one either needs to become president or “convince the president to make a drastic change of course.” This is why Glaziev has become a candidate – despite the existence of a political order “to prevent me from running in the election.”

This order, Glaziev explains, has come from “the top state officials who are in charge of the media” and who aim to justify their own existence “by holding a ‘turnkey’ election, with a predetermined outcome, turning it into a political show.”

As for Putin’s high support rating as a candidate, and the futility of competing with him, Glaziev has his own opinion about that: “It’s one matter if Motherland is taking part in the presidential election – and quite a different matter if it is not. There is no comparison between these circumstances.”

Glaziev believes that Putin can win with 70-80% of the vote only if there is no substantial alternative. “However, by deciding to take part in the election, we have fundamentally changed the situation. We have thereby offered our voters a real opportunity to choose between maintaining the current situation and changing it radically, in the national interest.”

That is precisely why Glaziev disapproves of the declaration made by the liberal 2008 Committee: “Nothing will come about without effort. If we allow the 2004 election to be held as a farce, without real competition, there might be no election at all in 2008.” And then “the members of the 2008 Committee may continue to rest.”

But Glaziev himself has no intention of resting.

As for the financial aspects of the matter, Glaziev is sure he will get support from Russian manufacturers – especially since he claims his requirements are fairly modest: “Anyone who has participated in elections knows that dirty PR is most expensive… High campaign spending is required when a candidate is seeking to deceive his voters and make them believe his lies. No great amounts of money are needed to give the people the truth.”

As Vremya Novostei comments, the Kremlin started “getting seriously concerned about Motherland” long ago, even before the Duma elections. “The Kremlin’s political strategists rapidly realized that by crossing Glaziev with Rogozin, they had created a political Frankenstein’s monster. But they didn’t realize this fast enough to kill it in time.”

On the one hand, says Vremya Novostei, it would be “indecent, somehow” to get rid of the president’s only reasonably substantial rival right before the election campaign starts. On the other hand, “nobody knows what might be expected from a person who can organize a constitutive congress so fast, without letting his colleagues know about it.”

There has been an outstanding scandal over the congress of the Motherland popular-patriotic union; Glaziev’s opponents are accusing him of “privatizing Motherland.” Dmitri Rogozin was in Strasbourg, attending a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe session; he made a special statement, describing Glaziev’s congress as a “politically unclean move” (Novye Izvestia), and describing Glaziev himself as “a partisan with leadership ambitions” (Gazeta).

Unruffled, Glaziev responded that “he cannot understand the hysterical statements of some of his colleagues” (Vedomosti).

According to a Gazeta source “close to the presidential administration,” Rogozin is annoyed because agreements made between Motherland leaders and the Kremlin before the parliamentary elections completely ruled out the possibility of Glaziev running for president.

According to Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center, Glaziev’s demarches have been creating too many problems for the Kremlin of late. Ryabov told Vedomosti: “Glaziev understands that he has no chance of rising to the very top within the system, and his prospects in Motherland aren’t that great either.” Therefore, Glaziev sized up the moment and decided it was critical enough to stake everything.

Actually, even in the wake a private meeting of the Motherland supreme council (Motherland I, that is, the bloc that succeeded at the parliamentary elections) which essentially formalized the bloc’s break-up, Glaziev is still assuring the media that the bloc is united. He told Gazeta: “Some of my colleagues have broken away from Motherland, but that is no reason to speak of a split.”

But Glaziev did permit himself some fairly strong words about his former colleague. He said: “Dmitri Rogozin’s statements are reminiscent of quotes from the stories of Saltykov-Shchedrin. They are so stupid, inane, and unfounded that I’m simply amazed. It’s as if somebody else has moved into Rogozin’s brain – apparently somebody from the presidential administration.”

The Kommersant newspaper reports that Sergei Baburin – leader of the People’s Will party, a component of Motherland – has also become involved in the conflict. Baburin said that under the circumstances, Glaziev should either find a new name for the organization he launched at the congress, “or find some way of linking its activities to the work of the Motherland bloc.”

Meanwhile, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an attempt may soon be made to oust Glaziev not only from the presidential election, but from the leadership of the Motherland faction in the Duma as well. And Sergei Baburin would be just the person to replace him as faction leader. The chances of such a replacement are assessed as fifty-fifty.

Alexei Makarkin from the Political Techniques Center told Vedomosti: “In their hearts, most Motherland members are with Glaziev – but reason tells them they are dependent on the Kremlin.”

Sources from Glaziev’s campaign team essentially say the same thing. Another anonymous campaign staffer told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Many of our Duma members can’t resist the pressure coming from the presidential administration, and are starting to step aside.” Thus, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “Glaziev may end up out of the presidential race and the Motherland faction as well.”

But at least the election will look good, and there will be no second round of voting for the favorite!