MOSCOW (Reuters) - In Russia’s presidential race, nothing is quite as it seems. Debates are absent, state media cover only the Kremlin’s chosen candidate in depth and critics say the contest resembles a coronation rather than an election.
So perhaps it is no surprise the only independent candidate left in the race is a little-known figure who has minimal support in the polls who used to handle public relations for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Andrei Bogdanov, leader of the tiny Democratic Party, avoids fierce attacks on Putin and praises the president’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, but denies he is a Kremlin stooge.
He also laughs off rumors the Kremlin helped him collect the 2 million signatures needed to run as an independent candidate in the March 2 election, although his Democratic Party won only 89,000 votes in a parliamentary election on December 2.
“These are fantasies, I can understand. The fact is that I was in the United Russia party and then I came back to the Democratic Party,” he said.
“When our party was in financial trouble, we paid in our own money and didn’t take it from the Kremlin or anyone else.”
Bogdanov, 38, said he was able to collect so many signatures because his party operated across the nation. But he is not aiming to win.
“If we convince the democratic voters that we will protect the interests of the middle class, then the vote could be more than 20 per cent, but I would consider it my personal luck if I collect more than 3.5 percent,” he said.
Bogdanov, who is the Grand Master of the Freemason’s Grand Lodge of Russia, praised Putin.
“Putin has done a lot to consolidate society and if he hadn’t done so, then Russia would have gone the same way as the Soviet Union,” he said.
But he also said that, on the negative side, Russia’s relations with the European Union had cooled during Putin’s presidency.
Bogdanov is among a field of candidates that also includes Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Unlike them, Bogdanov is little known in Russia.
Softly spoken and wearing a red jumper, he has a less stern and formal image than most Russian politicians. He also has portraits of himself as a Roman gladiator behind his desk.
His party portrays itself as liberal and Western-leaning. It wants Russia to join the EU and NATO, or at least a limited version of NATO without the United States involved.
Political analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre says Bogdanov’s main role in the election is to make sure it happens. By law a presidential election must have at least two participants.
“Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky are both savvy and experienced politicians and have bargaining power, especially in such a dramatic moment as the election. What if they withdraw their candidacies? Then the election cannot take place,” she said.
For his part, Bogdanov is optimistic about Russia’s future, in marked contrast to other independent politicians who bemoan what they say is the slow death of democracy under Putin.
“Democracy in Russia will be even better than in the United States within two or three, maximum five years,” he says.
For more on Russia's presidential election, please see our blog "Operation Successor" at blogs.reuters.com/russia.
Reporting by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Timothy Heritage