Russian election: Medvedev set to become president in Sunday vote

Polls indicate more than two-thirds of voters plan to vote for Vladimir Putin's longtime aide, despite little campaigning.

After an uneventful, month-long campaign, President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor – Dmitri Medvedev – looks set to win at least two-thirds of the vote in Sunday's presidential election.

But some experts argue that the real triumph in these elections will be for the system of "managed democracy," a Kremlin-choreographed exercise in which the population is mobilized to validate choices already made by the powers that be.

"A lot of people will turn out to vote, but they will be acting out of tradition," rather than individual choice, says Igor Mintusov, chairman of Nikkolo-M, a Moscow-based political consultancy. "People will be voting for stability because they've been told that this is how to keep the country on the same course," he says.

Indeed, in a televised appeal this week, Mr. Medvedev reiterated his central message, pledging political stability and continuation of Mr. Putin's policies. A longtime associate of the president, he has been appointed by Putin to all his previous government jobs, including the two he holds now: deputy prime minister and chairman of the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom. He has never run for office, and declined all opportunities to publicly debate his three opponents: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and political newcomer Andrei Bogdanov.

"I don't need to win a bunch of verbal battles with those who have never been at the helm of state machines, whose programs are outdated and obviously have no chance of being implemented," Medvedev explained in an interview on his website. "By engaging in direct debate with opponents ... the government candidate unwittingly helps them out," he said.

Such nonparticipation has made the campaign so uneventful that one of its spicier moments came from a different presidential race thousands of miles away: the US primary contest. Asked what she knew about Putin's successor during Tuesday's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton struggled visibly to pronounce the name of the Kremlin-backed candidate: "Meh, um, Medvedova, whatever," said Ms. Clinton in a tape played repeatedly on Russian TV.

Russian voters have been treated to no similar unscripted moments.

"On the surface, it's as though there were no campaign going on at all," says Lilia Shibanova, executive director of Golos, Russia's only independent election watchdog. "There is no political agitation, the cities are bare [of political activity], and there are no serious debates taking place," she says. "There is no discussion at all of the candidates' programs."

Whopping majorities in all opinion surveys say they are prepared to vote for Medvedev, but there is little indication that it's his expertise they are putting their trust in. A nationwide survey released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that just 19 percent of Russians expect Medvedev to "act independently" after he is elected president, while 63 percent thought he will be "under the control of Vladimir Putin and his circle."

As part of that circle, Medvedev has received far more coverage than his rivals in Russia's largely state-controlled media, even with virtually no formal campaigning.

According to a survey carried out over three weeks in February by the independent Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, Medvedev scored 17.3 times more airtime on the NTV television network than his three rivals combined.

"In the mass consciousness, only one [of the candidates] is being made to seem a real person, one who is prepared to become president, and that is Medvedev," says Mikhail Melnikov, an expert with the center. "This may not be a violation of the law, but it's obviously a violation of justice."

Olga Podolskaya contributed.

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