And then there were six. None of the six candidates for the March 14 presidential elections has thrown in the towel. However, Ivan Rybkin chose to do so earlier. The protege of the fugitive oligarch Boris Berezovsky removed his candidacy before the March 8 deadline when candidates could do so without giving any reasons. The law, though, stipulates that a candidate may withdraw from the race by March 12, but only in force majeure circumstances. This means such sudden disasters as a candidate falling seriously ill, a court ruling finding him or her legally incapable, the death or illness of his or her spouse or a close relative.
None of these misfortunes threatened Rybkin. Despite his odd behaviour and confused speech after some mysterious adventures in Kiev, where, according to Rybkin himself, someone made him take part in "disgusting videos", no one was going to find him incapable.
No one except for the voters, it seems. From March 9, any public forecasting is prohibited by law, but taking into account that Rybkin has withdrawn his candidature we may repeat what everyone has known for a long time: if his name had remained on the ballot papers, he would have won only a negligible number of votes.
Accordingly, Rybkin's announcement that he would not "call on his voters to vote for another candidate" sounds pathetic. There is, in fact, nobody to call on.
On March 14, millions of Russians are to cast their votes "for Russia", as a noble baritone in a TV advert says about the elections.
Russia will be represented by the incumbent president, Vladimir Putin, independent right-wing candidate Irina Khakamada, major politician and leader of the Party of Life Sergei Mironov, well-known economist and proponent of taxing natural resources' use Sergei Glazyev, Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov and Oleg Malyshkin, former boxer and district economic manager and now representative of the LDPR, the party led by renowned nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
By many standards, this range of candidates is quite impressive. If such a list were to appear on a Western presidential ballot paper, the press there would have the perfect opportunity to discuss the broad choice on offer to lucky voters.
This is not the case, however, when it comes to Russia. A cohort of foreign analysts specialising in X-raying Russian politics in general and the Kremlin in particular have already described the March 14 elections, which have not even taken place, as "lacking alternative" or, in a milder interpretation, as the "election of Putin, who does not have any genuine rivals".
Moreover, this thesis is made to sound like an accusation. The Kremlin seems to be directly and fully responsible for the fact that Vladimir Putin is set to win by a landslide, according to unanimous expert opinion, while the other candidates will have to be content with, according to the same estimates, very modest support.
This idea is developed into more menacing cries directed at the same poor Russia that lacks a true understanding of democracy.
If "the most terrible" scenario comes about and the incumbent president receives "a too high percentage of votes", Western Kremlinologists warn, "Putin's and Russia's international reputation will be damaged". As a result, Russia's political system is very likely to remind one more of Turkmenistan or North Korea than a western European democracy.
To put it bluntly, if you wish your country well, don't you dare vote for Putin.
Meanwhile, very few of these gloomy prophets acknowledge that this high percentage of votes, if the overwhelming majority of Russians does back Putin, may reflect the population's high appraisals of the country's real achievements in the incumbent president's first term.
In reality, Putin has become the driving force of successful economic reforms in Russia. This is why the country has enjoyed amazingly steady economic growth for over five years. Indeed, growth in this period equals 40%, although it should be pointed out that the starting level was not too high.
Putin has also managed to do something unthinkable for the Gorbachev or Yeltsin period: he has significantly restored the population's faith in the ability of the federal government and authorities in general to work effectively. The Yeltsin-era chaos has been replaced by an era in which salaries are paid on time, pensions are growing steadily, if slowly, there is more order in the streets and the average Russian has hopes for the future: life is becoming easier, life is becoming better.
The same Russians, for whom the USSR break-up was like losing a loved-one, cannot fail to notice that under Putin Russia's international image has obviously improved. The country is pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy and, which is especially important for restoring a sense of national identity, is learning to protect its interests. It no longer sacrifices these interests in order to be patted on the shoulder by the West, as was once the case under former foreign ministers Andrei Kozyrev and Eduard Shevardnadze.
Thus, the fact that Vladimir Putin does not have any real rivals is due to his true, undeniable popularity, which is a due reward for his first term in office.
On the other hand, the other candidates themselves are largely to blame for the lack of genuine rivals. For over 10 years, the right-wing camp has been torn apart by infighting over policies, and, more to the point, its leaders' ambitions, which has prevented the various likeminded groups from uniting into a powerful political force. Moreover, the population is still not ready to forget the chaos and economic problems of the 1990s, which were the direct result of the "democratic ideas" as understood by liberals at that time.
Interestingly, when the new president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili won 96% of the votes at the polls, no one in the West thought of warning Georgia that it was moving towards the camp of undemocratic states. So why this careful adherence to principles with regard to Vladimir Putin's potential success on March 14?
Putin is not a Stalin dreaming of restoring totalitarian rule in Russia. He is a leader who perfectly understands the vague line between democracy and the state's interests, when the state is witnessing a historic shift from one regime to another that no one has ever been through before. And so his popularity is not his fault. It would be great if the West could understand this.