Row with West overshadows Russia's election start

MOSCOW Fri Feb 1, 2008 6:40pm EST

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a session of the State Security Council at the Kremlin in Moscow January 30, 2008. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a session of the State Security Council at the Kremlin in Moscow January 30, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - An increasingly bitter dispute between Moscow and the West over democracy overshadowed the official start on Saturday of the campaign for Russia's March 2 presidential election.

President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, who enjoys blanket coverage on state media and full support from the Kremlin, is expected to win the election by a landslide.

Russia accused Europe's main election watchdog on Friday of trying to sabotage monitoring of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring body had in turn accused Moscow of imposing serious restrictions on its work.

Opinion polls show most Russians like Putin's hawkish stance towards the West, so taking a tough line against election monitors is likely to be popular among voters.

The growing dispute threatened a repeat of a standoff last year when European monitors scrapped plans to monitor Russia's parliamentary elections after accusing Moscow of obstruction. Putin's United Russia party went on to win a landslide victory.

The Europeans are unhappy Russia has stopped their monitors from starting work until only three days before the election.

"Open sabotage continues ... for our proposals of joint election monitoring," said Russian Foreign Ministry official Sergei Ryabkov.

Pollsters say Medvedev, now first deputy prime minister, will win at least 70 percent of the vote. State-owned pollster VTsIOM said on Thursday Medvedev would get 74 percent.

The 42-year-old Medvedev's nearest rival, veteran Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, has lost two previous presidential elections and is now shown with 12 percent of the vote. The other two candidates are even less of a threat.

Part of the explanation for Medvedev's high ratings is that an eight-year economic boom under Putin has made many Russians better off. Few want to rock the boat and risk a return to the turbulent 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As in December's parliamentary election, state media are giving generous coverage to the Kremlin's man and minimal air time to opponents.

Once again opposition candidates are crying foul, saying Medvedev -- a long-time close Putin ally -- enjoys huge government support and resources which they cannot match.

LESS PASSION

With such a predictable result in prospect, the campaign has so far aroused little passion and even less debate.

There is a widespread expectation that Medvedev's election will make little difference because Putin, barred from seeking a third term by the constitution, will go on pulling the strings.

Putin, 55, has already said he wants to retain influence and plans to become Medvedev's prime minister, though some suspect he may have bigger plans after that.

The absence of opposition candidates who might have packed more punch in the campaign has also helped Medvedev.

Former chess champion and leading opposition figure Garry Kasparov decided not to take part. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky were both disqualified by election authorities.

Medvedev's campaign managers said this week their candidate would not take part in any televised debates, robbing opponents of their best potential chance of publicity.

Russian media reported Medvedev would avoid campaigning altogether, preferring to cultivate an image of a leader already hard at work performing his deputy prime ministerial duties, rather than a candidate on the hustings.

So far Medvedev has made a series of appearances touring provincial Russian towns, often in the company of Putin. He has said he stands for continuity of the existing Kremlin line.

That stance is likely to play well with voters, more than half of whom told pollsters in December they would vote for whoever Putin -- Russia's most popular politician -- chose.

Given the lack of excitement in the campaign, commentators have chosen instead to focus on intrigue in the Kremlin.

Most have described Medvedev as coming from the Kremlin's liberal wing and have forecast that disappointed hardliners may try to fight back unless Putin holds the ring.

"There is no doubt there is a non-stop under-the-carpet struggle being waged in the Kremlin now with (hardliners) trying to attack the group associated with Dmitry Medvedev," said Dmitry Oreshkin, head of independent think-tank Mercator.

-For more on Russia's presidential election, please see our blog "Operation Successor" at blogs.reuters.com/russia.

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