Why Russians look to Putin
With approval ratings above 70 percent, Putin is expected to easily win a second term next month.
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In recent news broadcasts, Putin has been shown meeting with cheering supporters, visiting a nuclear sub sporting full naval uniform, and talking with military leaders about Russia's "superior" missile technology. State TV barely mentioned that at least two of the missile tests Putin was supposed to have witnessed actually failed.Skip to next paragraph
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By contrast, four of Putin's six electoral challengers were herded onto the first of several free-time slots on state TV last week, and ordered by the host to debate each other. "Bring Putin here and we will have a debate with him," said an exasperated-looking Irina Khakamada, an independent liberal candidate. "Putin is depriving people of the right to choose," echoed Nikolai Kharitonov, the communist challenger.
"Media coverage of the election so far shows there will be no equal playing field," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Moreover, he says, Putin's pledge to groom a successor - much as Yeltsin installed him in the president's job - suggests that the Kremlin is intent on removing power from the realm of democratic choice. "It has now been declared to society that the incumbent head of state will choose his own heir," says Mr. Ryabov. "That's tantamount to announcing that there won't be a free play of forces in the political process."
Russian authorities have exerted de facto control over most of the main media in the past four years and manipulated the party system to reshape elections into mock contests posing little challenge to the Kremlin's writ. So-called "managed democracy" has proved so effective that none of Russia's traditional opposition leaders bothered to run against Putin in this election.
Visiting Russia last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized Russia's political development in an opinion piece in Izvestia Jan. 26: "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet fully tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society - free media and development of a political party system, for example - have not yet attained independent reality."
Putin's style may simply match traditional Russian political culture, which sees a strong leader as the embodiment of the state. Many experts note, however, that the Putin machine will probably stall if a majority of Russians ever grow unhappy with his performance.
"The focal point on one leader helps a society that is increasingly fragmented to feel symbolically united and also situates that leader in peoples' minds above everyday concerns," says Alexei Levinson, head of social research at the Yury Levada Analytical Center, an independent public opinion agency. "Our polls show that when people are asked who is to blame for failures and disasters, such as terrorist attacks, most do not name the president. But when asked who should be thanked for stability and economic growth, most say Putin. That doesn't seem reasonable, but there it is."
Says Vitaly Tretyakov, a political columnist with the state-owned Rossiskaya Gazeta newspaper: "Russia is today a kind of plebiscite democracy, where one-man rule is preserved through democratic institutions," he says, "But as long as there is stability, people will be primed to trust this man, and only this man."