- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

LEBEDYAN, Russia — The Lebedyansky JSC Experimental Cannery has a quarter of the Russian fruit-juice market, a modernized production floor, ambitious expansion plans — and a 20-foot-tall statue of Vladimir Lenin, gazing off toward the horizon from the main office doors.

“In Russia,” said Alexander Kobzev, the company’s 33-year-old general manager, “we do not ruin our history.”

That attitude, encountered repeatedly in talks with officials and ordinary Russians in this industrial stronghold 250 miles south of Moscow, helps explain why President Vladimir Putin is coasting toward an overwhelming re-election victory today.

None of the five challengers, ranging from a Communist to a prominent liberal reformer, is expected to garner as much as 5 percent of the vote, but the man who may be Mr. Putin’s real opposition — former President Boris Yeltsin — isn’t even on the ballot.

While Mr. Yeltsin is seen by many in the West as a flawed but indispensable champion of post-Soviet Russian democracy, his presidency evokes harsh memories for Russians of economic dislocation, political anarchy, erratic personal behavior and a humiliating repudiation of the country’s very history.

The sober, disciplined, no-nonsense Mr. Putin, a one-time KGB officer, is the welcome antithesis of his predecessor, the “un-Yeltsin,” in the words of leading political analyst Alexei Pushkov.

Nikolai Belyaev, chief administrator for the town of Lebedyan, said in an interview: “Personally, I like having a strong personality in a leader, because discipline is a very important part of life. Without discipline, there is no progress.

“If you compare the style of this president with the last president, it is like night and day,” he added. “People remember that.”

Even some of Mr. Putin’s rivals agree.

Irina Khakamada, the one major pro-Western free-market candidate still in the race, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview last week that in contrast to Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Putin is young, athletic, and speaks excellent Russian and several foreign languages.

“I am sure that if I, a woman with Japanese blood, were officially declared Putin’s successor in 2008, my popularity rating would increase several times over,” she said.

At Lebedyan’s weekly open-air market here, vendors line both sides of the main street for a long city block, selling everything from religious icons and engine rotors to bike-tire tubes and shaving cream. The market no longer requires a government subsidy, Mr. Belyaev said, a small reflection of the larger Russian economy, which is expected to grow by 5 percent to 6 percent this year.

Mr. Putin’s sky-high ratings — the final opinion polls issued last week put his support at between 65 percent and 80 percent — come despite continuing questions about the war on Chechen separatists, the issue on which Mr. Putin, then little-known, first made his mark in 1999. Mr. Putin has barely bothered to campaign, skipping a televised debate with rival candidates and issuing no position papers.

The United States and several Western European governments have expressed growing unease at recent Kremlin moves, which are seen as stifling dissent and enhancing Mr. Putin’s clout.

“We know Putin is a popular figure here,” said one Moscow-based Western diplomat. “The question is, why does he have to win the vote with 80 percent when 55 percent or 60 percent is good enough?”

Such doubts are rare in the city of Lipetsk, where massive old Soviet steel mills have been supplemented with new investment in enterprises like the cannery and a refurbished refrigerator plant, boosting employment and wages.

In the days before the vote, there was almost no sign that a presidential campaign was under way. On a seven-hour train ride from Lipetsk to Moscow, the only hints of an election are two billboards with the image of ultranationalist Putin critic Vladimir Zhirinovsky — who isn’t even on the ballot.

Nikolai V. Zlobin, Washington editor of the Russian news service ProFile, said, “Having traveled a lot between the two countries, I feel there is much more talk about the Russian election in Washington than there is in Moscow. There’s very little attention being paid to the campaign in Russia.”

Oleg Korolev, a one-time head of a Soviet collective farm and now the governor of the Lipetsk oblast, said Mr. Putin deserves credit for restoring national pride after a decade in which the country seemed to bounce from one humiliation to the next.

“Everyone really suffered in the difficulties of the previous years,” he said, referring not to the Soviet times, but to the Yeltsin era of the 1990s.

“The psychological losses for us were more important than the economic ones,” he said, speaking through a translator.

“It was absolutely intolerable for us to tell the soldier who won the war that he fought for nothing. You should not tell millions of people that their whole lives were wrong,” he declared.

Ludmila Narusova, a member of Russia’s upper parliamentary house, has known Mr. Putin from his days as the top aide to her late husband, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a leading liberal reformer who gave the future president his start in politics in the early 1990s.

She said Mr. Putin’s image in the West has been distorted by his political opponents back home, many of whom speak English and are far more comfortable dealing with U.S. and European officials and scholars than the typical Putin supporter.

“President Bush’s Democratic opponents have said many critical things about him,” she said in a telephone interview. “How would it be if we judged your president only on that basis?”

Ironically, Mr. Putin owes his position in large part to Mr. Yeltsin, who tapped the then-obscure bureaucrat and former KGB agent to come to Moscow, first as head of the security services and then as his prime minister in 1999.

Mr. Putin has declined to criticize Mr. Yeltsin, telling a group of students in Krasnoyarsk on a rare campaign stop late last month: “I believe it would be wrong for us to be overcritical and to navel-gaze. We should see things as they are and look to the future.”

But Mr. Putin’s surprise decision to fire Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov last month was seen by many in Moscow as one more subtle but unmistakable break with Mr. Yeltsin.

Mr. Kasyanov was one of the last powerful figures in the Kremlin with ties to the notorious “Family,” the collection of relatives and close aides to Mr. Yeltsin whose influence and great fortunes built up in the 1990s are a source of continuing resentment.

Mr. Putin’s handpicked new prime minister, little-known technocrat Mikhail Fradkov, announced a government shakeup earlier this month that resulted in the firing of several other Yeltsin-era holdovers, including Education Minister Vladimir Filippov, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin and Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok.

The only new appointee with any ties to the old Family in the new government is Mikhail Zubarov, named the health and social development minister, according to the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow political think tank.

ProFile’s Mr. Zlobin said petty corruption remains endemic in Russian daily life, with small bribes required to obtain a license or clear up a tax problem. American University scholar Robert Ortung told a pre-election panel sponsored by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that resentment of super-wealthy oligarchs and a corrupt political elite will likely drive down the turnout today.

But while Mr. Putin has pursued only selective attacks on those oligarchs who have challenged him politically, a survey by the Center for Economic and Financial Research, a Moscow-based think tank, found that the Putin government’s tax cuts and deregulatory moves had reduced corruption in the business sector.

The name of Mr. Fradkov, Mr. Putin’s new prime minister, drew blank stares from ordinary citizens and even from officials of the Lipetsk Oblast government when his appointment was announced earlier this month. He had been serving as Russia’s top representative to the European Union in Brussels and had not figured in any of the Moscow speculation before his nomination.

But, said Mr. Belyaev, the identity of the new prime minister is less important for voters than the fact that Mr. Putin selected him.

“Things could be better, and people know that,” he said. “But with our president, we have a strong sense that things are finally moving in the right direction.”

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