- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

MOSCOW — Six months before election season begins in Russia, the Kremlin is all but assured of resounding success in a climate that raises questions abroad about the country’s democratic credentials but worries few ordinary Russians.

Some Kremlin opponents have already joined political analysts in predicting a crushing defeat for the opposition when Russians vote for a new parliament in December and a new president in March to replace Vladimir Putin, whose two-term limit will be up.

All but ignored by the press and facing a huge pro-Kremlin majority in the polls, the opposition is riddled with infighting. Some leaders despair at the divisions, while others say to unite would betray their democratic credentials.

“I don’t see enough political will to create a united opposition force in Russia,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former presidential candidate and independent member of parliament.

“This time, I’m afraid there’s no hope.”

More than 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dominance of state-controlled media is also helping to ensure that the presidential race is a safe bet for the Kremlin, according to critics.

Mr. Putin is constantly in the public eye on television and rarely criticized in public. Opinion surveys suggest that he remains broadly popular, restoring prosperity, order and national pride after the chaotic years under his predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin.

Opposition protests were broken up by police and few Russians seem interested in what Mr. Putin’s critics have to say.

“It’s just a game, we know the result in advance,” said Leonid Gozman, deputy chairman of United Right Forces (SPS).

At least two opposition leaders are likely to run for president, but neither has drummed up support in a country where oil-fueled growth and political stability have helped the public firmly on the Kremlin’s side.

Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said last week he was “ready” to run in the March presidential elections, the Interfax news agency reported, but he is given little chance as the party’s electoral support has crumbled.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, says between them the leading opposition candidates attract less than 3 percent in the polls, while the two state officials widely seen as possible Putin successors — rival Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov — enjoy over 30 percent support. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings are over 70 percent.

Unlike the U.S. presidential candidates who face intense media scrutiny more than 18 months before the polls, in Russia it is Mr. Putin who holds the key to his successor’s fortunes.

The Russian president, barred by the constitution from a third consecutive term, has said he will not disclose his preference until December and may have a surprise up his sleeve, according to a Kremlin aide.

“People in the West will see that Russia’s democratic institutions are very weak and cannot provide a constructive alternative,” Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office, said in an interview.

Opposition parties plan to campaign separately in December’s parliamentary election — a tactic that plays right into the hands of the pro-Kremlin United Russia, which holds 68 percent of seats, and its smaller ally, Fair Russia.

The inability to unite threatens smaller opposition parties with political oblivion, as they must win at least 7 percent of the vote to secure seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Fracturing the opposition vote, the liberal Yabloko party will field its own presidential candidate, probably leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who won initial backing from the party’s ruling body last weekend.

“There are confrontations between different candidates and some, like Yavlinsky, are driven by personal ambitions, not the ambition to create democracy in Russia,” said Mr. Ryzhkov, a supporter of the main Other Russia opposition movement.

A presidential candidate before, Mr. Yavlinsky defended his party’s strategy of snubbing the Other Russia movement.

“We are democrats and we are not ready to unite with fascists or radical communists. It’s unacceptable,” he said of the broad spectrum of protesters at nationwide anti-Putin demonstrations organized by Other Russia.

Former world chess champion and leading Putin critic Garry Kasparov had hoped to unite a broad coalition behind a single candidate by ruling himself out of the running.

But Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who joined the opposition after he was fired by Mr. Putin, undermined that plan by saying he would stand for president regardless of who was selected at an opposition congress next month.

Mr. Nikonov, the analyst, said polling surveys show all leading opposition candidates for president command only tiny shares of the vote. Mr. Yavlinsky would win no more than 1.5 percent support and Mr. Kasyanov just 1 percent, he said.

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