Russia set to elect Putin’s successor in one-sided poll
AFP | Mar 1, 2008
by Sebastian Smith
MOSCOW (AFP) – Russians will vote Sunday in a presidential election seen by critics as rigged to ensure victory for Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin successor Dmitry Medvedev, while enabling Putin to retain major power.
Voting was to begin at 8:00 am local time (2000 GMT Saturday) on the Pacific coast of the world’s biggest country before rolling 12,000 kilometres (7,500 miles) west to Moscow and on to the Baltic Sea territory of Kaliningrad.
Medvedev faced three challengers, but his overwhelming victory was almost a foregone conclusion after a campaign in which Russia’s heavily censored national television networks rammed home the message that he is Putin’s anointed successor.
Opinion polls predict Medvedev, currently first deputy premier and head of gas monopoly Gazprom, will win at least 60 percent of the vote and possibly more than 70 percent.
The other candidates — Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, populist nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the almost unknown Andrei Bogdanov — are forecast to score less than 30 percent between them.
At 42, Medvedev represents a new generation of post-Soviet politicians in the world’s biggest energy exporter and major nuclear power. Unlike Putin and most of Putin’s inner circle, Medvedev has no KGB or other security service background.
However, Medvedev says his main goal is to follow Putin’s course and he is set to install his mentor as prime minister.
The power-sharing formula, dubbed the “tandem” by Russian newspapers, suggests that Putin, 55, will remain a dominating force on Russia’s political scene well beyond Medvedev’s likely inauguration in May.
Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion turned fierce Kremlin critic, on Saturday attacked the “farce.”
“They have already decided who will win the election. Everyone understands that the election is not legitimate,” he said at the central election commission in Moscow, as he delivered a petition signed by more than 5,000 people against the poll.
Democracy groups also lashed out in advance of the election.
The vote “can hardly be considered as fair,” said the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which deployed 25 observers.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International and Russian election monitoring agency Golos said the Kremlin had stage-managed the contest through media bias, pressure on regional leaders, and use of state resources.
Amnesty International denounced a “clampdown on freedoms of assembly and expression,” while the election monitoring body of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) boycotted the election altogether, citing restrictions on its monitors.
Despite all the criticism, Russian authorities have made epic efforts to bring the ballot box to as many people as possible, including reindeer herders, fishermen and other far-flung residents.
Even cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko was to transmit his vote from the orbiting International Space Station to an official back on Earth, Russian television reported Saturday.
If elected, Medvedev will take the reins of a country of 142 million people that Putin has transformed since rising from obscurity in 2000 to replace the ailing and deeply unpopular Boris Yeltsin.
Russia is the world’s leading energy exporter and under Putin has used soaring gas and oil revenues to rebuild a collapsed military and to pay off international debts racked up in the post-Soviet 1990s.
New economic confidence is also fuelling a bullish foreign policy that puts Moscow at odds with the United States and Western Europe.
Putin’s few remaining outspoken opponents accuse him of dismantling democratic freedoms established in the 1990s — reducing parliament to a rubber stamp, failing to investigate murders of opposition figures and journalists, and committing massive war crimes in Chechnya.
Putin points to huge popular approval ratings and describes his presidency as a triumphant period following the trauma of the Soviet collapse.
On Sunday polls open in each of Russia’s 11 time zones at 8:00 am local time with final polling stations closing on Sunday in Russia’s Baltic region of Kaliningrad at 1800 GMT. In total, around 109 million Russians are eligible to vote.