- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

MOSCOW The campaign for Russia's March 26 presidential election is uneasily evocative of the rubber-stamp affairs of the Communist era, with straw candidates and an inevitable winner in this case, acting President Vladimir Putin.

At first glance it all appears democratic; there are a dozen candidates and daily opinion polls and much talk of election tactics. But as ever in Russia, appearance and reality are not synonymous.

Human rights activists and former Soviet dissidents increasingly warn of a creeping "neo-Sovietism."

They cite Mr. Putin's appointments of former KGB officers to top Kremlin posts, a suspected plundering of internal security agency files for political intelligence, and weakly disguised threats against newspapers that fail to toe the government line.

They also point out that major politicians, such as former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Gen. Alexander Lebed, were frightened off in the early going, leaving Mr. Putin facing only ineffective rivals.

Human rights veteran Sergei Kovalyov, dubbed the "conscience of Russia," warned last week that the country was lurching back to authoritarianism.

"I don't know about dictatorship. I don't think anybody has the strength to revive the gulag, but that is not necessary," he said.

"We lack a civil society in Russia and that means the prison warder, the censor, is inside us." Mr. Putin is "very good at reminding us of this inner censor," he added.

Less than three weeks before the election, the only question is whether Mr. Putin will get an absolute majority on the first ballot or be forced into an April run-off against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Most analysts suspect Mr. Zyuganov will be lucky to get a second chance at Mr. Putin.

"Putin will win on the first ballot," said former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who, like many Russian politicians, is helping to fulfill his own prophecy by jumping on the Putin bandwagon.

Although a member of the pro-reform party Yabloko, whose leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, is running in the election, Mr. Stepashin has thrown his support behind Mr. Putin.

Other former Putin foes are not far behind. Last weekend, Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St. Petersburg and a founding member of an anti-Kremlin political bloc, became the latest major politician to bow to the inevitable and swear allegiance to Mr. Putin.

Political analysts say Mr. Yakovlev, like Mr. Stepashin, had little choice but to join in the "paroxysm of sycophancy," as one Moscow Times columnist described the political elite's embrace of Mr. Putin.

The political calculations involved are clear. To stay out in the cold means missing the chance of grabbing political or commercial rewards when the post-election spoils are divided up.

Post-Communist Russia may have the trappings of a democracy but government remains opaque and politics are increasingly dominated by the Kremlin and an oligarchic network of clans.

"Russia remains a state in which a popular vote is used to legitimize a transfer of power which has already taken place," said Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at London's Royal United Services Institute.

Mr. Eyal pointed to the intimidating ability of the Kremlin to exploit vast financial resources, the media, the military and the security services to ensure victory for its candidate.

Veteran observers say the reassertion of Russia's authoritarian past was well under way during Boris Yeltsin's presidency but that Mr. Putin has given the trend a sharp shove with a helping hand from a business elite eager to ensure that the post-Soviet division of assets is not challenged.

Mr. Yeltsin's administration showed its teeth in December with a massive media mudslinging campaign against opponents in the election to the lower house of parliament, the Duma. The effectiveness of that campaign helped drive Mr. Putin's most dangerous rivals Gen. Lebed and Mr. Primakov out of the presidential contest.

According to Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, neither Mr. Primakov nor Gen. Lebed had much choice.

The mass media, controlled by the business elite, "pour filth upon all serious opponents of the Kremlin and barely let their voices be heard," she complained in an article published last week.

Mr. Putin's main rival, Communist leader Zyuganov, is unlikely to attract more than 20 percent of the national vote, according to opinion polls, and appears resigned to defeat.

Mr. Yavlinsky, the only other significant presidential contender, will be fortunate to gain much more than 7 percent, said Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation's Moscow offshoot. His pro-reform party is small and Mr. Yavlinsky's vocal opposition to the war in Chechnya is running against the grain of public opinion.

Though his approval rating has dipped below 50 percent only once in the last month, Mr. Putin is leaving nothing to chance. He has pursued a hectic regimen of election-style appearances while denying he is actually electioneering.

He has fostered the public image of a brisk and resolute strongman who can answer Russia's hankering for more order and less crime. His determination to restore Russia's former greatness and his promotion of a "strong state ideology" are striking chords with Russians weary of the economic decline and national humiliation of the post-Communist era.

Above all, it is Mr. Putin's brutal 5-month-long military campaign to subdue separatist rebels in the republic of Chechnya that has appealed to the general public.

His standing up to Western criticism of the campaign and his rejection of complaints about human rights abuses have burnished his image with ordinary Russians, who disapprove of what they see as the West's tendency to lecture. Many Russians blame the West for their economic woes.

"War is the main instrument of Putin's PR," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow-based Center of Strategic Research. Like many analysts, he believes Mr. Putin has deliberately used the Chechen conflict to whip up a public frenzy in his own support.

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