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Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2004

Putin's Main Rival Is Apathy
Russian President Set for Re-Election, But 50% Turnout Needed


MOSCOW -- Young Muscovites have a special treat in store: Dinamit FM, a local youth-oriented FM radio station, is giving away 20,000 tickets to its annual dance festival, "Bomb of the Year." There's just one catch: Only those who vote in Sunday's presidential election are eligible.

"We want to raise our listeners' political awareness," said Dinamit spokeswoman Lera Churmantaeva. She denied the promotion was ordered by the Kremlin.

When President Vladimir Putin faces re-election Sunday, his most serious adversary won't be any of the five rival candidates -- it will be voter apathy. With virtually no doubt he will triumph, getting enough voters to polling stations may be the biggest challenge facing Mr. Putin's campaign managers.

Turnout for elections in the U.S. and some European countries is routinely low. But under Russian law, voting figures are crucial: If turnout falls below 50%, an election is invalid and a fresh vote must be held. For the Kremlin, which sees Sunday's vote as a referendum on Mr. Putin and his policies, that makes getting the vote out critical.

Mr. Putin has won the support of millions of Russians -- roughly 70% of them, according to recent opinion polls -- with a first term that brought a sense of stability to a country shaken by a decade of crises, along with an economic boom driven largely by high prices for oil, Russia's main export.

But the former KGB colonel has set alarm bells ringing among liberals in Russia and in many Western capitals by tightening control over the political system, squeezing out powerful opponents and bringing major television networks firmly under state tutelage.

The Kremlin used that influence in December's parliamentary elections, with the pro-Putin party sweeping to a commanding majority at the expense of opposition groups. European monitors criticized the campaign for biased media coverage and other official manipulations, fueling fears that Mr. Putin is reversing Russia's progress toward democracy. Mr. Putin denies those allegations, insisting he is committed to democratic reforms.

The concerns have resurfaced in the latest campaign. Mr. Putin has refused to engage his rivals in televised debates, but enjoys near-saturation coverage on state TV. International observers found that in the first two weeks of the campaign, the state-owned First Channel dedicated more than two hours and 38 minutes of its news coverage to Mr. Putin, while all other candidates combined got 22 minutes.

With little public political competition, voter apathy could be the only limit on what has come to be known in Russia as "managed democracy." In Russia's young democracy, the novelty of elections so far has helped to boost turnout. But voter enthusiasm has been waning: 62% of them voted in the 1999 parliamentary elections, but only 56% in last year's.

The authorities appear aware of the risk that not enough people will show up at the ballot box. Last fall, a leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party said voting should be made mandatory, though the Kremlin didn't pick up on the idea.

Some political analysts say fears of a low turnout may be overstated.

"Most Russians see Sunday's vote as a plebiscite, not an election," says Igor Bunin, of the Center for Political Technologies. "As loyal subjects, they'd vote for Putin even if there were no other candidates running against him."

Opposition figures say Mr. Putin's aides aren't taking any chances. Sergei Glazyev, a left-leaning candidate, claims provincial civil servants have been threatened with the sack unless they ensure 70% voter turnout in their constituencies, with 70% of all votes going to Mr. Putin. He warned such pressure was coming directly from the president's administration.

Officials in Moscow admit there are excesses. Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov condemned a recent scandal in the far-eastern region of Khabarovsk, where state-run hospitals refused to admit patients unless they had filled out absentee-ballot papers. "Such cases," he said, "discredit the authorities and are unacceptable."

The fault, said Russia's top election official, Alexander Veshnyakov, lay with overzealous local bureaucrats trying to curry favor with the Kremlin by using "Soviet-era" methods to get out the vote. In today's Russia, he said, such techniques might have the opposite effect and increase the "protest vote."

But subtler methods are also at work. In Khabarovsk, two mobile-phone companies, DalTelekom and OAO MTS, are sending all of their subscribers text messages reminding them to vote. College deans in some parts of the nation's far east have declared Sunday a normal study day, so students remain closer to polling stations and don't sneak home for the weekend. Soccer lovers will have less to distract them from their civic duty: All premier-league matches scheduled for Sunday have been canceled.

Anti-Putin liberals -- a marginal electoral group these days -- are meanwhile split on whether to vote for opposition candidates, or boycott the elections altogether. Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which suffered a crushing defeat in December's Duma elections, says voting would mean supporting the regime Mr. Putin has created -- "an authoritarian political system where the press, secret services, elections, Parliament and business are all controlled from one room."

The Yabloko party demanded Wednesday that courts annul December's Duma elections in 170 of 225 voting districts, claiming widespread irregularities that skewed the results in favor of United Russia.

Others disagree with Mr. Yavlinsky. Boycotting this election would "mean we won't be seeing any more elections at all," said Irina Khakamada, an opposition presidential candidate.

Russia's electoral officials, for their part, shrug off criticism of the campaign -- especially if it comes from Americans. "They should run their elections properly too, so the whole world doesn't then laugh at the results ... like they did in Florida," Mr. Veshnyakov said in an interview this week with a Russian magazine.


See also:

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential elections 2004

Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2004

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