A vote for democracy, Putin-style
Russia's president is expected to win reelection handily Sunday - with tactics that critics decry as 'Soviet.'
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The Kremlin controls television broadcasting, and while Putin gave up his free allotment of TV time - just as he refused to take part in debates among candidates - the free airtime set aside for Putin's rivals is dwarfed by "news" coverage of every presidential activity.Skip to next paragraph
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Observers also decry the wide use of "administrative resources" by the Kremlin and local officials, to ensure a high voter turnout, or to make trouble for rivals on the campaign trail.
On Wednesday, a string of pro-democracy groups warned of an "unprecedented level" of state interference, a revival of "old methods of mass manipulation of citizens' votes."
The result is that, in a field of half a dozen contenders, Russia's election is a one-horse race.
"It's not easy, but these are our rules of the game.... Putin is doing nothing new," says presidential candidate Sergei Glazyev.
The president's vast approval ratings mean that Putin "had this chance" to ensure clean elections in Russia, while still winning handily, Mr. Glazyev says. Instead, the Kremlin is pressuring regional governors and local officials to get out the vote, to provide more credibility for a second term, Glazyev says: "[Putin] himself undermined his own legitimacy."
Even pundits close to the Kremlin, like analyst Sergei Markov, say that political operatives trying to please the president have gone too far, and are now causing damage.
Overuse of administrative resources against rivals "exists, and it's very bad," says Mr. Markov. It is the result of a "recovery" of the Russian bureaucracy, that is "creating an environment of hyperloyalty, and is becoming more of a problem for Putin." A problem, he adds, that the president "does not see."
But such issues "absolutely" do not spell the end of democracy in Russia, Markov contends, and are instead a next step beyond the chaotic transition that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The biggest mistake made by a lot of observers is that they saw the chaos of the Yeltsin years [of the 1990s], and thought this was democracy," Markov says. "Maybe from across the Atlantic, [Kremlin actions] look like a diminishing of freedom. But the freedom people want is not cannibalism."
But opponents have a different view of freedom, and don't trust Kremlin intentions. Irina Khakamada, a liberal political firebrand who has taken on the president without the support of her own party, says she is likely to create a new "Freedom of Russia" party, "because the more we lose that freedom, the more we realize how important it is."
Putin, she told a news conference Wednesday, is "a Soviet man. He seems inclined to restoration - restoration of the Soviet system." Russians must unite in protest, "or there might not be a 'next election' at all."
But Ms. Khakamada also takes aim at fellow democrats and herself for "a big failure" to convince ordinary Russians that politics matters to their lives.
Broadcasting that message is not easy, however, in a nation of 145 million that stretches across 11 time zones; in which one-third of the population remains below the poverty line and the Kremlin controls all the TV bandwidth.
In Putin's downtown election office, Borodin dismisses the complaints of the president's rivals.
"If a candidate says he's a small person, with little chance, it's his problem," says Borodin. "If he considers himself small, why does he participate?"