A vote for democracy, Putin-style

Russia's president is expected to win reelection handily Sunday - with tactics that critics decry as 'Soviet.'

Just days before Sunday's presidential elections, there are no mass rallies, and few banners and posters of candidates. Yet this low-key vote is expected to say volumes about Russia's "managed democracy," as well as what Russians want in a leader.

President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to win reelection by a wide margin, came to power four years ago promising a "dictatorship of the law." Indeed, he has brought a new stability and economic growth, while playing it tough in Chechnya - as well as with political rivals, constricting the marketplace of ideas in favor of firm control from the top.

Critics and a handful of opposition candidates - who between them can't muster a fraction of Mr. Putin's over 70 percent popularity rating - charge that Sunday's vote is a "farce" that has been pre-engineered by the Kremlin, and marks the end of Russia's experiment with democracy.

But for Putin's true believers in this Moscow campaign office - a low building tucked away anonymously on a quiet street, without a poster in sight - his campaign is democracy in action.

They have taken 700 phone calls, seen 900 visitors, and received more than 3,000 letters in the past month. Then they boil down those public sentiments, details of people's problems and policy suggestions, and give them daily, they say, to the candidate.

"Nobody makes people come here, or leads them by the hand," says Yuri Borodin, the silver-haired head of this "public reception" office, which, with its discreet surveillance cameras and uniformed police guards, is one of 89 spread across Russia. The only sign that a campaign is under way are black-and-white photocopy handouts of Putin family snapshots.

Turnout worries

Among the messages is growing fear of overconfidence, that a second Putin term is too much a foregone conclusion. If less than half the voters turn up, an embarrassing run-off could result. Only 56 percent cast ballots during parliamentary elections in December, though presidential races typically draw more voters.

"Even those who support Putin are concerned that people are so sure he will win, they won't come out to vote," admits Mr. Borodin, who has little time for other candidates who are crying foul. "How can anyone say everything is decided, if they give up from the beginning? Maybe when they have nothing to say to their voters, they can say there is not enough democracy."

Putin kicked off his low-key campaign on Feb. 12, saying that a sitting head of state "should not advertise himself ... and tell stories that have little to do with reality. It should have been done in the past four years."

Indeed, many Russians praise Putin for returning strong and sober leadership to the Kremlin, for acting with resolve internationally and in Chechnya, and acting against widely vilified oligarchs. A booming growth economy based on rising oil prices has bumped up salaries and doubled pensions.

But the price of that stronger leadership, despite Putin's rhetoric about "people's natural striving for democracy," has been a Kremlin reasserting control over key elements of civil society. Critics and rival candidates charge that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, never have the odds been so stacked against them.

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.

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."

Perils of hyperloyalty

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?"

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