As the press is noting, the final and most tense weeks of the current presidential campaign will overlap with Lent. And the Russkii Kurier newspaper points out that the night after election day – the time of the initial feverish vote-count – will open the fourth week of Lent, one of the strictest fast periods.

Russkii Kurier notes that most of the presidential candidates, including Irina Khakamada, consider themselves Orthodox Christians. According to Russkii Kurier observer Norman Ilums, only Nikolai Kharitonov “has set an example of behavior opposed to voluntary suppression of political ambitions.” More precisely, Kharitonov has called on all other candidates (except President Vladimir Putin, of course) to withdraw from the race in favor of the candidate representing the main opposition party.

Overall, as March 14 approaches the topic of withdrawing from the race is being raised more often in the media.

On Tuesday, the Kommersant newspaper published a statement from the campaign office of Sergei Glaziev. It notes that the incumbent president – the undisputed favorite in this campaign – has “a unique opportunity to hold a truly honest democratic election, without using dirty campaign techniques.” However, according to the Glaziev team’s statement, the current campaign “surpasses even the worst campaigns of the Yeltsin era in the volume of mud-slinging and smears, as well as the abuse of state administration resources and open pressure on candidates.”

According to the statement, such moves are being used with particular intensity against Sergei Glaziev. Therefore, his campaign team does not rule out the possibility that he may refuse to participate in the campaign any further.

Glaziev’s campaign manager Yana Dubeikovskaya told the Interfax news agency: “The regime’s rejection of constructive dialogue, the pressure techniques used on voters, the streams of negative campaign advertising – all this inevitably discredits the institution of presidential elections and causes people to lose any desire to take part in a performance staged by the authorities.”

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Irina Khakamada’s campaign manager Marina Litvinovich likewise did not rule out the possibility of her candidate dropping out of the race.

According to Litvinovich, Khakamada “will withdraw from the race if we are not permitted to campaign and express our ideas.”

In Litvinovich’s view, the campaign strategy of the president’s inner circle is extremely simple: turning this election into a referendum on confidence in the president. “Do you trust Putin? Vote for him!” In short, the Kremlin’s political consultants are setting up a “no choice” situation.

But the purpose of all the other candidates, says Litvinovich, is to prove that there is a choice.

In the process, as they criticize the regime’s current policies, candidates from the left and the right are unexpectedly discovering that they have a lot in common. Besides Khakamada, Glaziev and Kharitonov are also calling for effective rather than corrupt government, criticizing the special services, and upholding democratic liberties.

In general, according to Litvinovich, in the current election campaign “the main ideological dividing line is not ‘right or left,’ but ‘for Putin’ versus ‘against Putin.'” Therefore, Khakamada’s campaign team prefers not to focus voter attention on whether Khakamada is “right-wing” or “left-wing.” “The main thing they need to understand is that she is in hard-line opposition to Putin, and has her own plan of action to offer.”

Litvinovich believes “we’ll probably never know exactly how many voters do vote for us”: there were enough articles in the media after the parliamentary elections about how vote-counting is done.

Under the circumstances, there can be only one objective: “getting our ideas and thoughts across to the people. We fear that after March 14 it will become extremely difficult to do that.”

Ivan Rybkin, who seemed on the verge of quitting the presidential race after his Kiev escapade, is now insisting on being given the opportunity to speak out and take part in televised campaign debates.

After meeting in London with his patron and inspiration, Boris Berezovsky, Rybkin seems to have got his second wind.

Literaturnaya Gazeta even expresses the suspicion that the Rybkin scandal could have been another multi-step campaign move by Berezovsky, once a cunning “president-maker” and now an exile in London.

The first step, says Literaturnaya Gazeta, Rybkin published his revelations about Putin’s alleged patronage of some mysterious St. Petersburg entrepreneurs, “the Kovalchuk brothers.”

This, according to Literaturnaya Gazeta, was an attempt to distinguish Rybkin as Putin’s main rival – since, as mentioned above, all the other candidates are now criticizing Putin. Rybkin needed a dramatic move that would attract media attention.

The next step: since Berezovsky is aware that Rybkin lacks charisma, he had to think up another PR tactic – Rybkin’s disappearance, which had the whole country guessing, like a game of twenty questions.

Next came Rybkin’s puzzling reappearance, without any sensible explanations, and his grand departure for London. And from there followed a full range of revelations, together with commentaries from former intelligence agents Litvinenko and Kalugin, with references to the mysterious SP-117 formula allegedly used by the special services from the 1980s.

Maxim Sokolov, an observer for Izvestia, says this secret and powerful formula appears to work on the principle of the water of life and the water of death in Russian fairy tales.

“First the subject is given the water of death,” says Sokolov, “and he falls into a relaxed state in which anything at all can be done to him. Then he is given the water of life and ten minutes later he’s completely back to normal.”

Then again, in Sokolov’s view, Kalugin’s story would be more convincing “if he could tell a tale of how he personally used this formula to recruit ten Western ambassadors in Moscow and a few dozen military attaches.” However, the danger for those who might come up with such a move would be that “the intelligence agencies supervising Kalugin abroad might be foolish enough to believe him and demand the names and titles of those he allegedly recruited.”

Actually, in terms of PR impact, the whole Rybkin story is an excellent illustration of what Marina Litvinovich said in her Nezavisimaya Gazeta interview about the “unfortunate political consultants” who are finding it so difficult in this campaign to think up anything noteworthy or extraordinary for their candidates, “something impossible to ignore.”

But the ultimate goal here is obvious, says Literaturnaya Gazeta. “The goal which attracts Berezovsky and for which he is prepared to do anything and everything – it isn’t Rybkin, of course. Berezovsky is not at all concerned about how many votes Rybkin gets in this election, or whether it puts an end to his political career, or what might become of Rybkin in general. Berezovsky’s target is Putin.”

And so Berezovsky staged this whole complex series of events in order to get an opportunity to participate in the presidential debates – if only indirectly, via Rybkin.

According to Literaturnaya Gazeta, Vladimir Zhirinovsky may have unwittingly given Berezovsky the idea: after his bodyguard Oleg Malyshkin was nominated as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) candidate, Zhirinovsky declared: “I myself will be in charge of the election campaign.”

Literaturnaya Gazeta says the relationship of Rybkin and Berezovsky is similar.

All the same, as the Kommersant newspaper reports, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) categorically turned down Rybkin’s request to take part in televised campaign from London. The CEC stated that a satellite link-up cannot be considered equivalent to a candidate being present in person, as the law requires.

However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story. A detailed commentary on the situation was provided by Rybkin’s campaign manager Ksenia Ponomareva in an interview with the Sobesednik weekly. “I have known Boris Berezovsky for a number of years. Unlike myself, he is an optimist. That is, in a hopeless situation I might give up, after honestly saying that I’ve done all I can. But Boris is different – he’s one of those people who always run after the bus. In other words, he keeps fighting to the last.”

“The last,” in this case, is March 14 – and now there is no doubt that Berezovsky will not back down from his campaign project – Rybkin, the politician he has “privatized” (in the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer for the Versiya newspaper).

The unhappy Rybkin, says Radzikhovsky, is essentially “a thing – an inanimate, if outspoken, object belonging to Berezovsky.” Of course, Radzikhovsky notes, this doesn’t apply to Rybkin’s private life, only to public politics.

Another peculiarity in this situation is that all the principles of democracy are observed, and Rybkin has become Berezovsky’s “thing” entirely of his own free will: “At least he wasn’t put up for auction in public. He’s not the Norilsk Nickel company, after all.”

Radzikhovsky goes on to say that in Russia the battle between the authoritarian regime and the “democratic opposition” is generally “reduced to a battle between officials owned by the state and public politicians owned by ‘the oligarchs.'”

More precisely, by one oligarch: Boris Berezovsky. “Since the other oligarchs have long since surrendered to the regime and handed over all their treasures.”

Leading television commentator Mikhail Leontiev says the idea that all the presidential candidates are different is only a first impression, and a misleading one. The impression is that “Kharitonov doesn’t bear much resemblance to Khakamada,” let alone to Malyshkin, “the man with a hard fate.” And Rybkin is really down to only two options: “Join the circus or end up in the morgue, and he’ll be lucky to get the circus.”

According to Leontiev, the motivation for all the candidates’ behavior is identical: “They are trying to be an oppostion, but they’re not debating at all. On the contrary, they’re saying they have no questions for each other. They only have questions and criticism for the president.”

Strangely enough, says Leontiev, the points of criticism is similar. Of course, we might compile a hypothetical list of criticism of the president from the liberals, the Communists, and even the nationalists; but it would seem that all these politicians shouldn’t overlap in their criticism. “And yet they do. The first point of criticism is that Putin is Putin. The second is that he is the president.”

Such grievances are destructive, says Leontiev, and even ridiculous. “But what seems ridiculous at first sight may turn out to be dangerous in practice. This has already been demonstrated by bodies in the Moscow subway and the survival of Rybkin.”

In Leontiev’s view, all the presidential candidates “are only pawns being moved by somebody else’s hands.”

What’s more, the methods used by the present-day opposition amount to “political suicide bombing,” says Leontiev: “Blowing up politics – that’s the only general approach used by the existing political opposition. That’s because they have no other political program.” Everything else has long been known: “We have all heard them before – these people aren’t newcomers, after all. They have already said everything they are capable of saying.”

One event Leontiev might well classify as “political suicide bombing” is the Yabloko party’s call for its supporters to refrain from voting in the presidential election.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper published Yabloko leader Grigori Yavlinsky’s appeal to voters: “We assume that people are aware of the increasing lack of liberty in Russia, the absence of equal rights for candidates in this pseudodemocratic election, and how insubstantial – even comical – the candidates are.”

Yavlinsky considers that his appeal cannot be described as calling for “a boycott in the strictest sense,” because the Yabloko party’s leadership bodies have not passed any resolution obliging party members to refrain from voting.

Yabloko press secretary Yevgenia Dillendorf said: “The decision on how to vote is up to the conscience of each party member.”

Thus, as Novye Izvestia emphasizes, Yabloko’s decision amounts to advice. From the legal standpoint, the party could not have acted otherwise: any ban on party members voting in the presidential election, let alone anything supported by a resolution from the party’s leadership, could have been viewed as breaking the law.

And the Kommersant newspaper points out that in many regions there are also regional elections scheduled for March 14, as well as local government elections.

Yabloko’s local and regional branches have no intention of ignoring those elections. Thus, as Kommersant explains, Yabloko has had to develop a special technique that enables it to look after its local party interests while not sullying itself with participation in the “nationwide farce.”

Ordinary Yabloko voters are told they should turn out on March 14 – but only to vote in local and regional elections. Thus, they should only take the ballot papers relating to local and regional elections, refusing ballot papers for the presidential election. If electoral officials insist, voters may accept the presidential ballot papers, but should not deposit them in the ballot box. They should use their local and regional ballot papers to vote, and take the presidential ballot papers home with them.

Novye Izvestia says that if we take into account VTsIOM poll data showing that around 25% of Russia’s eligible voters never vote at all, the complex maneuvers of Yabloko supporters simply won’t be noticed on March 14.

The VTsIOM polling agency predicts voter turnout of no less than 60% in the presidential election, “and reports are coming in from the regions that regional administrations are prepared to go to any lengths to ensure this target is met.”

The methods they will use to achieve this are described by Kommersant, using Khabarovsk as an example. Over there, it’s already been announced that on March 14 the city’s hospitals will only admit patients if the patients can produce a note from an electoral commission that excuses them from voting.

Staff at the Khabarovsk regional administration openly admitted to Kommersant journalists that “doctors have been requested to assist in ensuring the necessary level of voter turnout for the presidential election.”

Khabarovsk health ministry officials told Kommersant that patients have been advised to secure voting exemption authorizations just in case they are hospitalized – but allegedly only on a voluntary basis.

In the Soviet era, authorities at all levels were familiar with, and fond of, the public’s relatively “voluntary-compulsory” participation in all kinds of events. This national tradition seems to have been revived.

Moskovskie Novosti chief editor Yevgeny Kiselev observes: “We are witnessing a repeat of the brilliantly paradoxical expression used by European observers during the Duma elections: free, but not fair. The story remains the same – it’s all about honesty, and honor. The honor and dignity of voters, whom the regime evidently does not respect – because it is speaking falsehood through the mouth of its own candidate for a second term in office.”

As evidence of this, Kiselev quotes Vladimir Putin’s speech to his authorized campaign representatives.

“I am convinced,” said Putin, “that the consistent development of our state and society requires civilized political competition.”

This half-hour speech by the campaign favorite was broadcast live in prime time on national television.

Obviously, says Kiselev, the other candidates cannot count on receiving equal time to explain their policy programs.

Thus, as Kiselev emphasizes, it becomes clear that “there is a very great gulf between real life and Putin’s words about the primacy of human rights and civil liberties, civil society, media freedom, and other politically correct declarations.”

The realities in Russia look fairly grim, says Kiselev: “The parliament has been subordinated to the executive branch, the oppositional democratic parties have been pushed out to the periphery of politics, the television channels have lost their independence, the Prosecutor General’s Office is used as a tool to persecute political opponents, the courts are biased, the business community has no rights and is terrified, and the phenomenon of political emigration is coming back. Besides, there are former special services people everywhere. And there is Chechnya, with all its ills driven inward rather than cured. And terrorist attacks in Moscow.”

All this, of course, could provide discussion topics for the president and his rivals during campaign debates – but alas! The president has refused to take part in the debates, and his rivals have accused him of showing disrespect for them and for all Russian voters.

Maybe they’re right, says Kiselev. But on the other hand, what have Russian voters done to deserve the regime’s respect?

“What have we ourselves done to make the president take us into account? For example, why should Putin respect the many ‘members of the academic community and creative intelligentsia’ who have sunk to a level of sycophancy even worse than in the Brezhnev era? Why should Putin respect the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which sort of spoke up for Khodorkovsky, but fell into line as soon as it heard a “Stop the hysteria!’ command from the president?” And so on.

Moreover, Kiselev says that “the completely irrational desire” of 60%, 70%, or even 80% of the citizenry to vote for Putin on March 14, come what may, will not bring a tear of grateful humility to Putin’s eye: “Unconditional support is called unconditional for a reason. It does not depend on anything the voters might receive in return.”

On the contrary, Kiselev predicts that the more votes Putin gets, the more free he will feel, and “the less he will take you into account.”

But the incredibly high support still shown by the public for its “president of hope” (as the pollsters call Putin) may yet prove useful. It’s no coincidence that in the same speech to his authorized representatives Putin spoke of his successor for the first tiem.

What’s more, last week the president and the Duma both indignantly rejected the “Ivanovo initiative” – a proposal from the Ivanovo regional legislature to extend the president’s term in office. This incident was undoubtedly a successful demonstration, in the lead-up to the election, of the favorite’s impeccable commitment to democracy and his loyalty to the Constitution.

And the head of state immediately hinted that he considers it his direct responsibility to prepare the person who will continue his work after 2008.

Anatoly Kostiukov says in Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Putin certainly understands that he has no such right, that the ‘post’ of successor will be the object of an acute power-struggle within the elites, and this power-struggle could escape from the president’s control, as it almost did in 1999.”

However, if the people’s “irrational” love for the present head of state is maintained, his opinion could mean a very great deal to voters.

The question is whether his popularity rating will remain high – and the election of 2004 may be the start of an answer to that question.