Thursday, March 23, 2000

MOSCOW Vladimir Putin’s possibly Napoleonic political tendencies have been given a thorough airing in the run-up to Sunday’s elections. The acting president’s personal Napoleonic stature is a much more closely guarded state secret.

The fact that the diminutive Mr. Putin looms large figuratively and literally in the broadcasts on Russia’s most widely watched television networks could stand as a symbol for the low-key but highly effective media campaign he has waged, controlling both the images voters see and the terms of the debate in the crowded presidential field.

Although the 47-year-old Mr. Putin has been much in the public eye in recent days, television coverage almost never shows the 5-foot-7-inch acting president standing next to a taller man. Instead, he is shown seated, playing with the family poodle, climbing (alone) out of the cockpit of a Russian fighter jet, or meeting with stooped pensioners or elderly women, as the NTV television network pictured him during Tuesday’s visit to Nizhny Novgorod.

In large crowds, Mr. Putin is typically shown striding past crowds of onlookers, making it hard for the viewer to get a clear sense of scale.

When Mr. Putin does meet with taller people, as in his one-day summit earlier this month with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the cameras oblige by photographing the leaders from below, making both seem toweringly tall.

The stratagem, part of a carefully cultivated Kremlin media offensive, appears to be working.

A new poll released yesterday by the Romir polling group puts Mr. Putin’s support at 57 percent, comfortably above the absolute majority he needs to avoid a runoff. The poll, conducted March 18-19, represents a rebound for the president from previous surveys and by law is the last that will be published before Sunday’s vote.

If Mr. Putin’s height (which he reportedly augments with shoe lifts covered by extra-long trousers) is hard to discern, evidence of the election itself is almost nonexistent in downtown Moscow.

Extensive drives through the central city and a long walk in the environs of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin office reveal just three campaign posters single billboards for reformist candidates Grigory Yavlinsky of Yabloko and Samara region Gov. Konstantin Titov and a lonely handbill for nationalist Alexei Podberyozhkin of the Spiritual Heritage bloc.

While dominating the airwaves, Mr. Putin’s street presence isn’t any more prominent. Two men brave a spring snow squall outside a central Moscow subway station sporting sandwich boards detailing in fine print the acting president’s skimpy election platform.

The boards themselves offer just a head shot of the president.

Mr. Putin’s ragtag band of nearly a dozen challengers has been reduced to complaining about each other’s media coverage and climbing unusual platforms in a bid to get noticed.

Mr. Yavlinsky, who has waged perhaps the most energetic campaign against Mr. Putin’s record, was criticized for a Feb. 29 stop at a Russian military base and for the frequency of his appearances on Russian news broadcasts, even though he lags far behind the front-runner.

The economist and former top Kremlin aide under Mikhail Gorbachev even appeared on a Russian cooking show this week, discoursing on his affection for herring and potatoes.

“I plug in my iron and Yavlinsky is there,” complained ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirnovsky.

For his part, Mr. Yavlinsky this week complained that the ORT network, whose coverage of the Putin candidacy has been highly favorable, had refused to air one of his campaign commercials and had not run taped news programs in which he had taken part.

The station, owned by Russia’s biggest television company, denied the charges. And four candidates with rock-bottom poll numbers, including former State Duma Deputy Ella Pamfilova, the only woman in the race, competed this week on the Russian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Their television appearances may have helped their recognition ratings, but not their campaign bank accounts: All winnings went to charity.

“The media are so sure that Vladimir Putin is going to be elected president that they aren’t giving readers any alternative,” observed media critic Francesa Mereu in the Moscow English-language weekly Russia Journal.

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