The presidential election campaign in Russia has reached its peak, though in a place where nobody expected. The chief contender, incumbent President Vladimir Putin upset his rivals' apple cart, first by firing the government three weeks before the elections, and then by nominating to the post of prime minister a dark horse for the Russian elite and public - Russia's representative at the EU Mikhail Fradkov.
Why did he do it? It is becoming clear now that Putin wants to strengthen the government, focus its attention on several vital problems, and reinforce his control over the cabinet, thus consolidating the executive branch. This will help him to accelerate market reforms and work for a stable and quick economic growth in the next few years.
This may be a shrewd election move, but then, none of Putin's rivals at the March 14 elections proved ready for it. The reason is simple: by dismissing and reforming the government, Putin has created an agenda for the future, while other candidates have been thinking and speaking about the past.
Irina Khakamada, a leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), built her election campaign on harsh criticism of Putin's use of military force in Chechnya, which she thinks is aggravating the problem of terrorism in Russia. It was not a smart move. Indeed, the threat of terrorist attacks has greatly complicated the people's life, yet the Chechen war is already in the past, though the recent past, for Russia. Hostilities long stopped there, while a year ago Chechnya approved a constitution and accepted its status as an inalienable part of Russia, and the bandit groups driven into the mountains are becoming smaller with every passing day. It is another matter that they have brought terrorism to Russian cities, where they can act in small groups, but this is not a war.
Another opposition candidate, former State Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin attempted to play on Putin's KGB past. On February 5, the ex-speaker secretly left Moscow, spent several days hiding in Kiev, stirring global public opinion with his disappearance, and, upon reappearing and going to London, tried to blame his "vanishing act" on the Russian security services. Rybkin hinted that the incident was rooted in the president's desperate attempts to retain power.
But the "tall tale" of Ivan Rybkin, whom only 1% of the people trust, was so convoluted and contradictory that the general public openly ridicules it. Very few people in Russia are interested in such spy stories. Rybkin could have been believed in 1991, when the anti-democratic coup hatched by the KGB and the Soviet Communist Party fell through and the outraged crowd in Moscow tore down the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police. Times have changed, and the strength of the president's personal rating has turned the absurd idea of the physical neutralisation of his political opponents, which had been practised at times in the Soviet Union, into a silly anachronism. This is what people in Russia, including in the remotest Siberian villages, think. Rybkin is not a threat to the president and is not interesting to the electorate.
Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov is another hostage of the past, or rather of his inflexible party, which has been pining for the Soviet Union for ten years but falls silent when the problems of modern Russia are on the agenda, such as the need to increase national competitiveness or ensure integration into the global economy. By the way, the Communists rejected the offer of Mikhail Fradkov to hold consultations on the format of the future government. This is logical: indeed, how can the Communists speak about the future if their ideology is built on the past?
In the 1990s, such a tactic on the part of Putin's rivals could have yielded good results. But it does not work in the 21st century. The election rating of the president is a confident 75%, while his rivals have less than 5% to their credit.
The rituals of the past are senseless in the present, and it is the awareness of this truth that probably helped Putin to successfully end his first term, make a strong claim for a second one, and, most importantly, become a genuine national leader, the first one for recent decades.
At the same time, Putin is a surprisingly ritual-breaking head of state, which is quite unusual for Russia. The people tried not to notice the practical senselessness and purely ritual, ineffective operation of such "Kremlin old men" as Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chenenko for a long time. But when the "old men" became extremely old in the mid-1980s, the public started grumbling. This is probably why the summit of Boris Yeltsin's first presidential campaign in 1996 was his ritual dance with popular pop singer Zhenya Osin. Yeltsin was gravely ill; in fact, he was preparing for a heart bypass and spent the next few years mostly in bed, but his short and rhythmic dance broadcast on television made the country think that he was full of vigour and the best possible candidate for the presidency.
Was that ritual effective for the election campaign? Yes, it was then, but it cannot be now. Today, Russia is facing the extremely practical tasks of accelerating economic growth and regaining leading positions in global politics. A ritual president who is held by his ritual opponents on a short leash and accepts their agenda will not fulfil such tasks. And a reformer president must be the unquestionable leader, above all in his own team. Peter the Great was such a leader. One of the greatest Russian reformers of the past 300 years, he founded St Petersburg, the birthplace of Vladimir Putin. Today the supporters of the president joke that Peter and Vladimir are from the same "St Petersburg team".