The race to replace President Vladimir Putin officially opens Saturday. But actual campaigning is difficult to find.
Mr. Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who is basking in opinion polls that show him winning almost three-quarters of the votes on March 2, has declined to campaign or even publicly debate his opponents. Several outside candidates who might have challenged the Kremlin's script were ejected from the ballot in the pre-campaign stage, leaving only the usual, predictable also-rans of post-Soviet Russian politics, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and oddball ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A third contender, Andrei Bogdanov of the tiny Democratic Party, is a virtual unknown who has never criticized the Kremlin.
"These elections are really just an afterthought in a political system where the main issue of who will succeed Putin has already been decided," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "What's left is just a performance to convince the world that there's a functioning democracy in Russia. And if the show is going badly, it's due to bad management."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned this week that it may not be able to send its delegation of 70 observers to the polls if Moscow doesn't relieve some of the tough new restrictions on their activities. Those include a requirement that the team come just three days prior to the voting, and that it not be allowed to monitor Russian media coverage of the campaign to judge its fairness. "These conditions don't allow us to carry out a meaningful observation and therefore fulfill our mandate," the OSCE said in a statement.
And in an odd twist, Putin ordered the FSB security service to intensify security precautions before the elections. "You must step up efforts to receive timely information about any attempts to interfere in our domestic affairs," he told officials of the KGB successor agency Wednesday.
Some experts warn that the Kremlin's overmanagement of the election could backfire, by destroying any semblance of credibility in the process. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought the first wave of democratization to the USSR two decades ago, spoke out this week against the reduction of elections to a one-horse race. "Something wrong is going on with our elections, and our electoral system needs a major adjustment," Mr. Gorbachev told the independent Interfax agency. "Certainly, the election will take place in Russia and people should vote, but its outcome is totally predictable," he complained.
Mr. Medvedev's office announced this week that the candidate would be "too busy" carrying out his official duties as deputy prime minister in charge of social projects to campaign or take part in televised debates with his rivals. He has been travelling around Russia, often in company with Mr. Putin, holding public meetings that are lavishly covered as "news" by state-run TV networks.
And while Medvedev may not be campaigning, he has set up an election Website where people can read his speeches and view photos of himself and his family (www.medvedev2008.ru/english.htm).
Vyacheslav Volodin, a top leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, told Russian media that Medvedev's way of campaigning was just to do his regular job. "The most important thing for us is real deeds, meeting people and solving actual problems, not wrangling in a TV studio," he said.
But even some experts who are normally sympathetic to the Kremlin view wonder why, if Medvedev is genuinely popular, he won't appear in an unscripted venue with his rivals. "In Russia, where democracy is new, it would be good to start some new traditions in which the electorate is given a clear picture of what the candidates stand for," says Peter Lavelle, political commentator for the English-language Russia Today TV network, which is funded by the Russian government. "It's a disappointment" that Medvedev won't engage in debate, he says.
Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was officially stricken from the ballot this week for allegedly falsifying 14 per cent of his 2 million nomination signatures, has called on other opposition candidates "not to take part in this farce."
Communist leader Mr. Zyuganov, whom polls show with about 12 percent support, threatened last week to do just that, but later decided to remain in the race. Yet, in a meeting with supporters Wednesday, Zyuganov, who has taken part in every post-Soviet election, sounded wistful for the days when elections carried some suspense.
"Every day I see how the election campaign in America is going, how Hillary Clinton and [Barack] Obama are competing, but I don't see anything on our own television screens about any real discussion of the problems," he said. "We need a normal dialogue".