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Friday, November 02, 2007

Bovt on the Campaign Trail of Putin

Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Georgy Bovt (pictured) explores how Vladimir Putin hopes to win votes and influence Russia:

Russians are gathering in public squares all across the country in support of "Putin's Plan" and calling for the president to remain in power after March 2008.

Many demonstrators are making direct appeals to change the Constitution to allow for a third presidential term. Others hope that Putin will become a sort of "national leader" by preserving all of the powers he now has even after he abandons the presidential post. From a legal perspective, this is completely ludicrous. Unlike Iran, there is no such government position of "spiritual leader," but this doesn't seem to faze his loyal supporters.

The people who are organizing these demonstrations try to present this outpouring of support as a grassroots movement. During a recent radio interview, lawyer Pavel Astakhov claimed that he travelled around the country attending pro-Putin demonstrations on his own money and that all of these meetings were initiated by "ordinary people." Astakhov related how in one city, an "ordinary doctor" was able to get permission from the mayor to hold a meeting in the town's main square, where 15,000 people showed up. Meanwhile, the press published copies of telegrams and official directives addressed to various organizations and universities that required a certain number of their employees and students to attend pro-Putin rallies,

Members of Russia's intelligentsia are also quite active in this initiative. A minor scandal broke out last week after filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli signed their names to a letter that called for Putin to remain in power.

There is no shortage of people willing to rewrite the Constitution to suit Putin. And Sergei Mironov, the Federation Council speaker and head of A Just Russia, got all excited about the possibility of Putin staying in power without having to make any changes to the Constitution. In theory, this is possible, but it would require amending a federal election law to allow Putin to run again for the post of president after leaving office before his second term expired. Putin is unlikely to agree to this idea because it is too crude and ludicrous. It would be simpler and more honest to simply change the Constitution to achieve the same goal.

The problem is that Putin, during the EU-Russia summit last week, rejected that possibility -- probably for the 100th time. He also said that he had no plans to shift presidential powers to the prime minister post, as many have speculated.

What is the purpose of the hysterical propaganda campaigns, the servile appeals to the president and the clumsy attempts to rewrite the law?

I believe that the whole thing is really a brilliant tactic by Kremlin strategists to get the public interested in the State Duma elections. If Putin had not chosen to head United Russia's ticket, if there was none of the wild speculation about what position Putin will hold after his presidential term expires, and if television did not bombard its viewers with reports of countrywide demonstrations lauding "Putin's Plan," how could the Kremlin otherwise get the people intrigued with politics and maintain their interest in the Duma elections?

It is truly hard to imagine that an entire election campaign can be conducted without discussing a single important social issue, especially when there are so many to choose from -- for example, the rising cost of food, ethnic relations and the struggle against immigrants. And of course, there is the old standby: the threat of a U.S.-sponsored Orange Revolution.

By focusing exclusively on the president, the election campaign has become devoid of any real substance. On the other hand, however, it has really sparked the people's interest in the elections. Having achieved this, what will Putin's next step be? This will be decided only after Dec. 2.

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