Barely a week to the March 14 presidential elections, the Central Election Commission (CEC) has announced "standby alert." CEC chairman Alexander Veshnyakov told journalists at a press conference in Moscow late this week that on March 10 the CEC would hold an intercom conference to check the readiness of the elections system.
The chairman said the heads of all regional, area, territorial and district election commissions and representatives of executive authorities and law enforcement agencies would take part in the conference. "We are talking about more than 100,000 people who are directly connected with the preparations for the election," said Veshnyakov.
He also cited figures about the forthcoming work of the media. The accreditation of journalists has ended; 1,140 journalists from 62 Russian and 136 foreign periodicals and 19 Russian and 78 foreign television and radio channels will cover the elections.
However, today journalists in Moscow are spotlighting not the forthcoming elections but the formation of the new Russian government, which should be completed by election day. Observers, analysts and experts are suggesting the names and even lists of future ministers, though they agree that these forecasts cannot be viewed as final. For example, the nomination of Mikhail Fradkov to the post of prime minister several days ago contradicted with all forecasts, even those made an hour before the surprise news became public. Fradkov, who was Russia's representative at the EU, was not on any list and few people knew his name. This is why it is said there may be an element of surprise in the nomination of ministers, too.
As of now, there are only two unquestionable candidates - Mikhail Fradkov for prime minister and Alexander Zhukov, a prominent politician from United Russia, for his first deputy. The rest of the list is extremely unclear. Some observers think the first vice-premier may be the only deputy. Other members of the new Cabinet will get the posts of ministers. It is rumoured that the ministries will be enlarged and their number will be slashed from 23 to 16, each becoming a bunch of federal departments. The financial block may be headed by acting Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, the economic block, by acting Economic Development Minister German Gref, and the fuel and energy block, by acting Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko.
United Russia, which has the absolute majority in the State Duma, hopes to see its members in at least ten ministerial posts. The press names such active members of the party as Oleg Morozov, Georgy Boos and Lyubov Sliska.
As for the quickly approaching presidential elections, the West is closely monitoring the developments, though it knows about their "predictable" outcome. However, the host of foreign journalists did not get accreditation for the mere purpose of repeating the news live.
The elections are in the focus of attention of large international organisations, in particular PACE, which decided to send to Russia ten MPs as election observers, says Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma international affairs committee. According to his information, the delegation will be led by Rudolf Binding of Germany, "who is known in Russia for his close attention to the Chechen subject, which he presents in a manner that is openly unfriendly to Moscow."
Putin's rivals are working more energetically now, addressing the people with their programmes on radio and television.
The "detective" story of the "disappearance" of Ivan Rybkin was resumed on Thursday. The independent presidential candidate turned up in Kiev again, where he held a press conference. However, Igor Grebennik, deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service's Main Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption, failed to deliver to him the summons to the Office of the Prosecutor General. Rybkin is wanted as a witness in a case he himself instituted, claiming that he had been forcibly held in a doped state somewhere in Kiev.
In early February, Ivan Rybkin vanished from Moscow and his wife filed a missing person report with the police. However, the presidential candidate soon surfaced in Kiev and since then has not produced a credible explanation for his actions anywhere - in Kiev, Moscow or London, where he has been in the past few weeks. The situation is still murky and has left the male half of Russia's population with a wry smile on their lips. On Thursday, CEC chairman Alexander Veshnyakov once again called on Rybkin to return to Moscow in order to take part in the elections.
One more inordinate event was the suit "in protection of her honour and dignity" filed by independent candidate Irina Khakamada against another presidential candidate, Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov. Khakamada claims that during a television debate a week ago Mironov said her election campaign was financed by criminals.
But all these scandals have not caught the attention of the public, even though many people understand the outcome of the elections is not clear. The people do not doubt that Vladimir Putin will win, but they are not sure he will do so in the first round. There may be a second round if less than 50% of the electorate comes to the polling stations on March 14. This may happen if the majority of Russians think the election outcome is decided. On the other hand, their activity has increased in the past few days and Putin's rating has soared to 80%. Most analysts have a simple explanation for this "Russian phenomenon" - at the beginning of the 21st century Russians are not worried about "democracy in society" but about stabilisation processes in politics, the economy and law and order. Many people associate the word "democracy" with the slogans of the turbulent 1990s, which resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the near ruination of the economy and impoverishment of the people.
Russian voters today clearly prefer the word "order." But it would be wrong to think that they interpret it as major repression campaigns against dissenters, though many people may hope that "the criminals who plundered the country will be punished," as they say.
The nation's main hope for the forthcoming presidential elections and formation of the new government is that the authorities will ensure them higher living standards and security. As an old friend of mine said recently, he wants this very much, which is why he will definitely go to the polls.