- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

MOSCOW Sacrificial lambs in Russian politics have historically shed real blood, but acting president and overwhelming favorite Vladimir Putin has no shortage of competition in Sunday's presidential ballot.

In addition to serious rivals such as Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov and Grigory Yavlinksy of the reformist Yabloko bloc, Russia's roster of 11 official candidates includes a well-known film director, the country's first female candidate and a Moscow-based Chechen businessman who contends that the country deserves a "stylish president."

The colorful crop of also-rans has served to make combustible ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, running again as the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, seem like almost an elder statesman in his campaign television appearances this time.

Take Umar Dzhabrailov, for example.

Born in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1958, the long-maned investor was refused a visa to the United States because of suspicions about his role in the 1996 murder of an American businessman in a hotel contract dispute.

Sporting an economics degree and a business background, Mr. Dzhabrailov says he is challenging Mr. Putin after receiving a divine revelation.

Stanislav Govorukhin, 63, is better known to voters here for the string of films he directed than for his five years in the State Duma, the country's main legislative body. As a lawmaker, he went after pornographers; as a filmmaker, he has celebrated vigilante justice against Russia's rising criminal class.

And Ella Pamfilova, 46, figures to make history Sunday even if, as polls suggest, she gets less than 1 percent of the vote.

Miss Pamfilova, an engineer and former Duma deputy, is running as a feminist pioneer blazing the path for future female candidates in a male-dominated political culture.

Several candidates were clearly thrown off stride by former President Boris Yeltsin's decision to step down on Dec. 31, forcing the election date to be advanced. Mr. Yeltsin, whose popularity ratings were in the low single digits, has been virtually invisible during the current campaign, ignored by both Mr. Putin and his critics.

Russian General Prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who fought an epic battle of wills with Mr. Yeltsin over charges of corruption in the Kremlin, has gained little traction trying to transfer the corruption spotlight to Mr. Putin.

And the Communist Party's Mr. Zyuganov, who nearly bested Mr. Yeltsin in the first round of the ideologically charged 1996 presidential race, has foundered in his challenge to Mr. Putin, who flaunts his competence rather than his convictions.

Many of Mr. Putin's challengers, including Miss Pamfilova, Kemerovo Gov. Aman Tuleyev and Spiritual Heritage candidate Alexei Odberyozkin, have expressed admiration for the incumbent and pledged to work with and possibly for him after the election.

Political analyst Boris Kagarlitsky dismissed Mr. Putin's challengers as "cardboard cutouts," running more to make a name for themselves than to secure power.

The campaign's biggest disappointment may be Konstantin Titov, the highly touted reformist governor of Samara, who earned a reputation as a pragmatic administrator able to attract foreign investment to his region. He has also been outspoken in his criticism of Mr. Putin's recent moves to curtail civil liberties.

But the 55-year-old Mr. Titov's campaign never caught fire, and just this week he resisted heavy pressure to shut down his candidacy and throw in with Mr. Yavlinsky.

While the 10 challengers are given virtually no hope of denying Mr. Putin his victory, analysts say they can still have a major say in the evolution of the next Putin government. If Mr. Putin fails to achieve an absolute majority Sunday, he would be forced to a second round against the second-place finisher in mid-April.

With the acting president's views on crucial economic and international issues still vague, Mr. Yavlinsky in recent days has tried to unify free-market forces to boost both his vote total and Yabloko's influence on Mr. Putin's administration.

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