Who wants to be a president?

Russia votes for its next leader on Sunday. Vladimir Putin seems a shoo-in, so his rivals seek any possible hype - even game shows.

Russian voters were treated to two telling images in the last week before their second-ever presidential elections.

Image No. 1: Acting President Vladimir Putin dominates the news on Monday, making an unannounced trip to war-torn Chechnya by SU-27 fighter jet. The usually staid Mr. Putin cut a dashing figure, climbing out of the aircraft in a bomber jacket and pilot's mask. One news agency reported he took the controls during the flight.

Image No. 2: Desperate for exposure, several of Putin's rivals in the presidential race appeared as contestants this past weekend on Russia's equivalent of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

That about sums up the state of campaigning in the March 26 Kremlin sweepstakes.

Unable to erode Putin's massive lead in opinion polls, rival candidates are resorting to almost any tactics to secure their status as honorable "also-rans" or to influence voters on peripheral issues. One candidate candidly urged voters to support his bid for second place.

"There is no actual struggle taking place here, just a frantic jockeying for position among the losers," says Mikhail Omski, director of Image-Kontakt, a Moscow political-consulting firm. "It's as if we're having a virtual election, not a real one."

Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal campaigner for Yabloko, a reform-oriented party, routinely tells audiences that he's running "because it's time to beat the Communists."

In other words, Mr. Yavlinsky dreams of overtaking lackluster Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, the No. 2 contender, who himself trails some 35 points behind Putin in recent polls.

And the winner will be ...

A television commercial for ultranationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky depicts an exotic fortune teller saying the stars ordain that he will win the presidential election - the next one, that is, four years from now.

A survey conducted by the All-Russia Public Opinion Center last week found that 58 percent of respondents would vote for Putin, 21 percent for Mr. Zyuganov, and 4 percent each for Mr. Yavlinsky and Mr. Zhirinovsky.

If those proportions hold, Putin may be expected to win an outright majority in next Sunday's vote and thus escape the indignity of facing a second-round runoff three weeks later.

Last weekend, while a confident Putin relaxed at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, four of his 11 rivals battled each other on "Lucky One," a top game show where contestants answer questions for cash.

No politicking was allowed, but a smiling Ella Pamfilova, who is the first woman to run for president in Russia, took home $1,400 in winnings, presumably for her war chest.

Putin has made the most of his opponent's desperation by grandly declining to avail himself of the 80 minutes of free TV time granted each candidate for stating their positions and debating the issues with rivals.

"People in the executive must prove their worth by their concrete deeds, not advertising," the acting president said in turning down his share of the time.

"I will not be trying to find out in the course of my election campaign which is more important, Tampax or Snickers," he said in a jab at politicians who "market" themselves like a name brand. Of course, Putin can afford his Olympian stand. He's already a name brand.

Two of Russia's three nationwide TV networks are state-owned, and they seem to have adopted an all-Putin, all- the-time news agenda.

Whenever the acting president meets a foreign leader, holds a Kremlin reception, visits a region, or even takes a weekend ski break, the networks cover his every word and move.

During Putin's visit to an automobile factory in western Russia yesterday, the media presence was expectedly heavy. The ORT television station even deemed the candidate's publicity spin in a factory car worthy of airtime.

Zyuganov, No. 2 in the polls, has complained that Russia's three big TV networks show an average 2-1/2 hours of Putin in their daily news shows, compared to eight minutes of Zyuganov.

"We haven't done exact calculations on this, but Zyuganov's calculations sound about right," says Yury Levada, director of VTsIOM, Russia's largest public-opinion agency. "The advantages of incumbency have never been used so overwhelmingly before. Putin simply dominates the media."

What's the point anyway?

For many Russians the ascension of Putin already seems so certain that there seems little point in paying attention to the campaign.

"Putin is already like a Czar," says Mikhail Ryazanov, a graphic artist. "He doesn't beg for votes or ask the people what should be done. He rules, we follow. Just like it's always been in Russia."

A joke making the Moscow rounds seems drawn direct from this popular mood. In a version of the Aesop fable, a crow is sitting on a tree branch with a large piece of cheese in his beak.

A fox comes along, and says, "Crow, are you planning to vote for Putin?" The crow says nothing.

The fox paces a bit, then says, "I'm asking again, will you vote for Putin?" The crow shifts nervously but keeps his beak shut.

"For the last time," says the fox, "I demand to know if you're going to vote for Putin." The crow says, "Yes," dropping the piece of cheese, and the fox snatches it up.

The crow looks down and asks himself, "Would it have made any difference if I'd said 'No?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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