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Election Marks Uncertain Milepost in Russian Democracy

February 29, 2008 at 6:05 PM EST
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After eight years of firm rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin is bound by law to give up his position. But Sunday's election, in which his hand-picked successor is expected to cruise to victory, is being derided by some as simply a continuation of his rule. Simon Marks reports from Moscow.
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JIM LEHRER: Russia’s election. Special correspondent Simon Marks has our report.

SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: In Russia this week, virtually the only signs that a presidential election is taking place on Sunday are the signs.

They started appearing across Moscow around three weeks ago, and they simply read, “March 2nd Elections for the Post of President of the Russian Federation.”

That dry reminder to people that this weekend they are supposed to choose Vladimir Putin’s successor in the Kremlin is as exciting as this campaign has been.

The man due to exit the presidency in May after wrapping up his constitutionally permitted two consecutive terms in office says the absence of excitement, drama or suspense is fine with him.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): The fact that the campaign is a calm one without all of these debates and commotions inside the country is not a sign that democratic procedures are lacking here, but shows instead that most citizens of our country support the course we have followed over these last years. This explains why the election campaign is relatively quiet.

Medvedev headed toward a landslide

Dmitry Medvedev
First Deputy Prime Minister
I want my motherland to live the life it deserves. I want our people to plan for years ahead and we are certain of their future. I want our country to live in order and justice, and I am convinced this is the way it's going to be.

SIMON MARKS: So quiet that Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has refused to campaign or debate his challengers. They are barely visible in news coverage of the election here, and in some cases their rallies have been blocked by the authorities.

Medvedev has continued making a handful of visits to various towns and cities in connection with his current job, overseeing a national priorities program. A 42-year-old technocrat who has worked with Vladimir Putin in various capacities for the past 17 years, he has seemed almost reluctant to emerge from the shadows.

In one of the few television advertisements screened during the campaign, he's presented himself as both the candidate of continuity and change, the man to build on eight years of prosperity, and perhaps deliver Russians a little more liberalism and freedom than his patron has permitted.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia (through translator): I want my motherland to live the life it deserves. I want our people to plan for years ahead and we are certain of their future. I want our country to live in order and justice, and I am convinced this is the way it's going to be.

SIMON MARKS: Vladimir Putin presented Dmitry Medvedev to the nation just before the new year, telling the country that Medvedev is the man to continue delivering development, stability and prosperity.

Polls show that Vladimir Putin's endorsement will deliver Dmitry Medvedev a landslide victory on Sunday. He is more than 60 percentage points ahead of his challengers.

The only ones permitted to contest the election are the perennial losers of Russian politics: Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has failed in presidential bids for over a decade; ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose clownish campaign tactics this week included descending on a restaurant kitchen and cooking lamb chops for the cameras; and Andrei Bogdanov, a candidate so obscure he's expected to attract only around 1 percent of the vote on Sunday.

Excluded from the process: men like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. He would have been the only democratic reformer seeking the presidency, but the central election commission declared his candidacy invalid.

Another reformer, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, now a persistent critic of the Kremlin, is boycotting the election, saying it's a rigged farce.

GARRY KASPAROV, Leader, United Civil Front (through translator): Those in power constantly show us that no form of debate, no form of discussion is permitted, no talk about the problems that are facing the country. They won't allow any of it.

SIMON MARKS: The Kremlin rejects that talk and says Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are simply reaping the benefits of their own success.

Arkady Dvorkovich is close to both men. He heads the Kremlin's Council of Presidential Experts.

ARKADY DVORKOVICH, Presidential Experts Council: Of course, many of us would like to see more funny things like in United States, for example, now between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. But more important is continuation of successful policies. And people like stability right now more than radical changes.

Putin's popularity at record levels

Olga Khasbulatova
Deputy Governor, Ivanovo Region
The main thing we have now under Vladimir Putin's rule is a clear goal of improving the life of the people, of developing the economy and the social sphere.

SIMON MARKS: That Vladimir Putin's record is popular across Russia is beyond question.

Last weekend, beekeepers from across Russia's 12 time zones descended on Moscow to participate in an annual honey festival. It's a popular event here, and beekeeper Galina Yephimkina came to sell her wares all the way from Gorny Altai in southern Siberia.

GALINA YEPHIMKINA, Beekeeper (through translator): People have more money now. We used to sell cheaper types of honey, but now people are looking for the more expensive varieties. They know it's better for them.

SIMON MARKS: Everyone we stopped told us the same story: Business is better. Consumers have more money. Life under Putin is sweet. And they presume it will be, too, under Medvedev.

GALINA YEPHIMKINA (through translator): We support Putin because he's reliable. We are confident in tomorrow. And judging by what has happened during his years in power, things changed for the better. Of course, we are for Putin, for Medvedev, no doubts about that.

SIMON MARKS: No doubts, too, that Russia's prosperity, fueled by the country's oil boom, is now going beyond the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Ivanovo, population around half a million, lies 200 miles northeast of Moscow. The home of Russia's textiles industry, it's known as the "City of Brides," and it's been through some rough times since the Soviet Union's collapse.

The NewsHour first visited Ivanovo 12 years ago, during Boris Yeltsin's presidency. Then, the textile factories here were teetering on the brink of collapse, as the first trappings of free market chaos loomed.

Today, around a quarter of them have shut down, but those still in business, like the Red Weaver Company, are now fully privatized and charting a new course.

Red Weaver has appointed a head of design. She proudly showed us some of the company's plans for a new range of sheets and bedspreads and the young generation of designers trying to guarantee the company's future through innovation.

While some industrial jobs have disappeared in the city, other opportunities have been created by a construction boom that is transforming the skyline and by a newly vibrant retail sector.

There's a shopping mall that wouldn't look out of place in Middle America, bringing Western flair and fashion to town. The old central market has been refurbished and now offers fresh produce -- some of it even organic -- at prices a growing number of local residents can afford.

There are fears here and across Russia about the possibility of price inflation taking root later this year, but in a city where people used to stand in line for bread, the only line we saw was for the ATM.

Olga Khasbulatova is the deputy governor of the Ivanovo region. She told me she's been in politics for 38 years and is now a convinced supporter of Vladimir Putin, who has used the country's oil wealth to help underwrite the costs of transforming the area's economy.

OLGA KHASBULATOVA, Deputy Governor, Ivanovo Region (through translator): The main thing we have now under Vladimir Putin's rule is a clear goal of improving the life of the people, of developing the economy and the social sphere.

I think the state has changed its attitude towards people. It started treating their needs with respect. It doesn't only say that it cares; it concretely cares for the people. And the results are different.

SIMON MARKS: She and other local officials reject out of hand reports that people across Russia have been ordered to vote for Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday and threatened with their jobs if they fail to show up. Russians, she asserts, want to back Medvedev because he is the guarantor of stability.

Critics: gov't silencing opposition

Lev Ponomarev
Human Rights Activist
President Putin publicly said that human rights activists are "jackals of foreign embassies," meaning that we are financed by international funds. But I have to say that that is now the only way to finance human rights organizations.

SIMON MARKS: Ivanovo has undoubtedly profited under Vladimir Putin's presidency. And the people here, in turn, are poised to vote on Sunday for the man he's chosen to succeed him.

But the city has not entirely escaped what many argue is the dark side of the Putin era.

Vladimir Rakhmankov owns an online newspaper in Ivanovo and two years ago published an article disparaging President Putin in vulgar terms. Convicted of "humiliating a public official," his paper was shut for six months and he was fined, he says because local politicians wanted to prove their fealty to the Kremlin.

VLADIMIR RAKHMANKOV, Editor, Kursiv (through translator): I'm absolutely positive this was the initiative of the local authorities. This wasn't coming from Moscow; this is something that's just in the air when bureaucrats do everything they can to demonstrate their loyalty. That's what vertical power is all about.

SIMON MARKS: Back in Moscow, where vast construction projects are literally changing the face of the Russian capital, Vladimir Putin is accused of orchestrating a campaign aimed at limiting free speech, expropriating private media outlets that criticize him, and dramatically curtailing the ability of nongovernmental organizations, democratic reformers, and human rights activists to operate in Russia.

Lev Ponomarev is a veteran campaigner for human rights and the latest Kremlin opponent to feel the long arm of the law. From his cramped office in Moscow, its walls hanging with portraits of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, he has published articles alleging that a new network of prison camps is being secretly operated by the Russian government.

He's facing charges of slander and has been ordered not to leave Moscow until the legal case against him is resolved.

LEV PONOMAREV, Human Rights Activist (through translator): President Putin publicly said that human rights activists are "jackals of foreign embassies," meaning that we are financed by international funds. But I have to say that that is now the only way to finance human rights organizations.

Our activities haven't been completely stopped, but we are on the verge of being shut down, and we don't know how the next president will act.

Power may shift with Putin

Vladimir Putin
Russian President
The president is head of state, guarantor of the constitution... But the highest executive power in the country is in the hands of the government. There are enough powers to go around, and Dmitry Medvedev and I will divide them between ourselves.

SIMON MARKS: Not sure about how the next president will act because no one in Moscow is entirely certain about the role that will be played by the incumbent.

Vladimir Putin has no plans to leave the scene when he exits the Kremlin. Dmitry Medvedev has promised to appoint him prime minister, head of the government. It's a position that Putin now extols as the real power in the land.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): The president is head of state, guarantor of the constitution, and sets the main domestic and foreign policy guidelines.

But the highest executive power in the country is in the hands of the government. There are enough powers to go around, and Dmitry Medvedev and I will divide them between ourselves.

SIMON MARKS: Putin advisers echo the idea that the power of the presidency is about to be curtailed.

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: Now we're entering into more stable period without any crisis situations, without a need of radical revolutionary changes. And in this situation, there is no need for such intensive involvement of the president into the government issues.

SIMON MARKS: But you know that your international partners will want to know who's in charge, who's running the show.

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: They will find a way to show that responsibilities are divided very clearly. And there will be no doubt who is responsible for what in Russia.

SIMON MARKS: And let me ask you if we can resolve one mystery today: Who will represent Russia at the G-8 conference in Japan?

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: Usually it's done by presidents, so I think it's the president.

SIMON MARKS: Will Vladimir Putin go with him?

ARKADY DVORKOVICH: I think no.

SIMON MARKS: The notion that Vladimir Putin will continue to exercise power in Russia from his new office in the government building, while a compliant president takes on a more ceremonial role up the river in the Kremlin, bemuses political analysts.

Putin biographer Lilia Shevtsova envisages inevitable tensions between Prime Minister Putin and his presidential protege.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA, Carnegie Moscow Center: Even if he has no real personal ambitions of his own -- by the way, Medvedev has been chosen as the successor only because he has never betrayed the existence of any political ambitions, but there is a logic of this kind of power.

What we'll have pretty soon, we'll have squabbles. We'll have tug-of-war -- oh, my dear, a lot of tug-of-war between the two teams -- in fact, between the two gangs and between clans of interest that will consolidate, coalesce around these teams. And it may sooner or later bring paralysis of power.

SIMON MARKS: The jury, then, is out on how the upcoming experiment in Russian governance will work. On the Arbat, a pedestrian walkway in Moscow where traders sell souvenirs to tourists, the trinket designers are hedging their bets.

You can still buy traditional Russian dolls depicting Vladimir Putin, dolls depicting Dmitry Medvedev, and now dolls depicting the two of them together.

An election dismissed by critics at home and overseas as a sham is setting the stage for a political dance that could prove to be a delicate ballet.