Putin's invisible challenger

Some dissatisfied Russians will vote 'none of the above' on March 26. Others not at all.

Ivan Konov is not the type of person who would ordinarily inspire fear in Vladimir Putin, Russia's tough acting president. Mr. Konov, a schoolteacher, is a reserved, bookish fellow who lives with his mother in Moscow. He doesn't like fights.

But Konov is angry in his own quiet way, and he is one of a growing number of Russians who plan to lodge protest votes in the March 26 presidential election. Feeling cheated by Mr. Putin's near-guarantee of victory, these voters plan to check the box "none of the above."

"I don't want to be an object of manipulation," he says.

Some analysts believe that the Protiv Vcech (Against All) vote may be a swing factor, denying Putin the 50 percent-plus majority needed to avoid a second round runoff vote. It would be a major embarrassment for Putin - whose support in opinion polls is near twice that of his closest rival - to lose to no one. His government would also prefer to avoid taking the chance that support might erode between a first and second round.

But because Putin is so far ahead, many supporters may stay away from the polls, giving any votes against him added weight. Thus, a large "no" vote may be a decisive factor for the first time in post-Soviet politics.

"This is a completely new situation. Protiv Vcech could get 20 to 30 percent," predicts Andrei Biryukov, public relations director of the Nikkolo M political consulting center in Moscow.

"In the 1996 elections, the vote was white versus red - liberal reformers personified by President Boris Yeltsin against a Communist comeback. This time Putin is seen as a clear winner. He doesn't have a liberal opposition or clear Communist competition. In fact, the Communists are seen to be working with him."

Putin's opinion poll ratings run a hefty 45 to 60 percent, boosted in part by his conduct of the war against Muslim separatist rebels in Chechnya.

A media smear campaign last fall and a backdoor deal in parliament between the Kremlin and the Communists sidelined Putin's main challenger, Yevgeny Primakov. The respected former prime minister and Yeltsin critic dropped out of the race in January.

Putin's closest current rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, is forecast to draw around 25 percent. Mr. Zyuganov lost to Mr. Yeltsin in a second-round runoff in the last election. Next in line is pro-free-market reformer Grigory Yavlinksy of the Yabloko party, with less than 4 percent.

This is where Protiv Vcech comes in. While Putin's ratings are high, he has also alienated a large section of the population. Urban liberals in particular complain that their candidates have no chance against the Kremlin's political and media machine.

"It is clear that the bureaucrats plan to make a fiction of rights and freedoms in Russia," reads the manifesto of a group calling itself the Committee of the Cheated Electorate. "If we vote against everyone on March 26 then the current power will have to resign."

Under the banner of the "13th Option" - there are 12 candidates running in all - a half-dozen groups like this one organized by human rights activists and disgruntled rightists are urging the public to express its dissatisfaction. Significantly in a country where apathy runs high, many Russians say they have decided to vote Protiv Vcech.

"I am a responsible person so I will fulfill my constitutional duty to vote," says Olga Rubinina, an earnest student who will cast her first ballot next week. "I don't like any of the candidates, so I will check the last [13th] box." Her hope is that the Protiv Vcech vote will outweigh that for Putin. In that unlikely event, new elections would have to be held within four months.

Expected high absenteeism could also be a factor. If less than 50 percent of Russia's 107 million electorate vote, the poll is deemed invalid. In the 1996 presidential contest, turnout neared 70 percent. By contrast, President Clinton won reelection the same year on a 49 percent turnout.

But some analysts expect an intensification of the trend seen in Russian parliamentary elections in December. Elections had to be repeated in eight electoral districts across Russia after nearly 2 million people voted "Against All."

If that were the case, it would be the first time a protest vote would be a viable factor in Russian elections.

And with more than 35 percent of the population - much of it supportive of Putin - expected to abstain from voting, his election team is apparently taking no chances. A recent official statement claimed that those calling for a boycott or "against all" vote were allied with terrorists - Kremlin shorthand for Chechen rebels.

"There are forces in Russia that are not interested in the election of a proper leader.... That's why it is not surprising that the propagandists of terrorism have launched a provocative campaign to destroy the elections," read the statement issued by the government information service Rosinformcenter.

"The appeals to vote against everyone or to boycott the elections have one aim: to prevent the establishment in Russia of an active power that will be responsible legislatively and in the eyes of the people."

The dour Putin lacks the charisma of his predecessor, but he has held the advantage since Yeltsin suddenly resigned Dec. 31, moved the election forward by three months, and named Putin, then prime minister, as his replacement. The firm nationalism of the onetime KGB spy and former head of its successor, the FSB security service, has struck a popular chord across the ideological spectrum. So confident was he at first, that he appeared not to be campaigning at all, spurning television ads and debates.

The only snag so far in his campaign occurred on Monday, when the publisher of a book entitled "From the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin" had to suspend plans to sell 500,000 copies to avoid violating election laws. Otherwise, Putin could have been dismissed from the race.

In his favor is the Kremlin's influence, which has dampened most media fault-finding. But in recent weeks he has had to answer for some of the heaviest losses in Chechnya since the current conflict began and the messy handling of the month-long disappearance of Andrei Babitsky, a journalist whose reports from Chechnya were often critical of the Russian military.

Mr. Biryukov notes that a week is a long time in Russia's mercurial political scene. He also suggests Kremlin spin-doctors may be using the threat of the "Against All" vote to get Putin supporters out to the polls.

"This is a very sophisticated form of public relations, to warn: 'If you don't vote, no one will," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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