In Russia, It's No Contest
By Masha Lipman
Monday, January 12, 2004; Page A17
MOSCOW -- Irina Khakamada, a prominent Russian liberal politician, has announced that she will enter the presidential race. The election will be held in mid-March, and Khakamada's last-minute self-nomination was unexpected, even by her own party, the Union of Right Forces.
The Russian liberal constituency is disconcerted by the recent defeat of the two Russian liberal parties in the parliamentary elections in December (neither is represented in the new Duma). Liberals are confused and in doubt about what to do. Khakamada may be a popular figure and a proponent of democratic values, but her potential supporters find it hard to believe her nomination was not coordinated with the Kremlin, and they are reluctant to compromise their votes by taking part in a Kremlin-directed game.
Indeed, in today's Russia, all politics is tightly overseen by the Kremlin minders. Another way to put it is: No public politics is left in Russia. The parliamentary elections in December were a vivid illustration of state power: The president's aides secured a pro-Kremlin majority of more than two-thirds in the Duma, which has basically become a one-party body.
With President Vladimir Putin virtually uncontested and democratic procedures dramatically compromised, the liberal parties were considering boycotting the presidential election. Until Khakamada's self-nomination, the choices for Russian liberals were confined to voting against all candidates or abstaining from voting altogether. Putin's "rivals" were picked by his aides to better set off the Russian president. As a result, the forthcoming race had begun to look like an absurd joke.
Two veteran presidential candidates, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the ultranationalist buffoon Vladimir Zhirinovsky, will not run. The two seasoned political players may have known better than to come out as Putin's direct opponents. Rumor has it that they made their decisions after "consultations" in the Kremlin. Putin's aides may have indeed disliked the idea of the incumbent being opposed by politicians with tangible support, especially ugly ones such as Zhirinovsky.
The Kremlin has effective leverage over party leaders: It may easily strip any party of financing. With oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail, no businessman in his right mind would sponsor a party without Kremlin approval. Defiance of the Kremlin has become very unpopular among the Russian elites, business and political alike.
Each of the two party leaders came up with a proxy. Zhirinovsky, who never misses an opportunity to turn politics into a farce, nominated his bodyguard. The man's name is Malyshkin, which may be roughly translated as "Mr. Little One." Not much is known about Mr. Little One except that he has a hearing problem and that he thrashed a Zhirinovsky opponent after a heated televised debate during the recent Duma election. Zyuganov's party nominated a second-tier colleague.
Among the other candidates are the super-rich pharmaceuticals king Vladimir Bryntsalov and the speaker of the upper house, Sergei Mironov, who is running for president, oddly enough, as an ardent supporter of the incumbent. The nationalist Rodina (Motherland) party, created by Kremlin aides shortly before the December Duma elections, has nominated two of its leaders for president. Ivan Rybkin, a loyal hand of the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, has also submitted his nomination.
It is broadly understood that any of these contenders may be removed from the race or withdraw his nomination should the Kremlin deem his participation undesirable. Another understanding is that Putin will not humiliate himself by participating in political debates with such puny competitors.
The only remaining problem was that such a noncompetitive and politically meaningless election might fail to excite the voters and thus cause a low turnout. Now, with Khakamada in the race, even this minor problem appears to be gone: If a liberal politician such as Khakamada takes the election seriously, it's harder for critics to dismiss it as meaningless. The idea of the boycott will likely fade away (At least some of Khakamada's party colleagues, taken unawares by her announcement, will probably endorse her self-nomination; they may also be joined by some in the liberal Yabloko party). She may even be allowed to criticize Putin -- something that has become unheard of in today's Russia. After all, it would inject some excitement into the campaign and make it look more legitimate.
Khakamada knows that her participation suits the Kremlin; she claims she'll take advantage of it. She seems highly motivated to run as a full-fledged opposition candidate. Of course, she can in no way be a true competitor to Putin: Her party got less than 4 percent of the vote in December, and she suffered a dramatic defeat in a single-mandate race in St. Petersburg. She has other things going against her, including being female in a male-dominated political world and her unusual ethnicity (she's half-Japanese). In fact, the Kremlin may still bar her from running against Putin. To get her name on the ballot, Khakamada will need to collect 2 million signatures in support of her nomination The deadline is Jan. 28, and the success of this hard and costly task will depend on the Kremlin's goodwill.
Khakamada flatly denies that her nomination has been coordinated with the Kremlin. But in the tightly managed world of Russian politics, such a claim is naturally met with skepticism. This is the odd paradox of Khakamada's candidacy: The only way she can prove her bona fides would be to fail to gather the 2 million signatures required to get her name on the ballot, since that would mean the Kremlin had sabotaged her efforts. That would also mean, of course, that she'd be out of the race, such as it is.
Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra Journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.