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    Russia’s Presidential Candidates: a 101 Guide

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    With less than a month remaining until the Kremlin vote, the presidential campaign is picking up steam nationwide. RIA Novosti offers a brief look at the five candidates who made it on the ballot, detailing how they got there, who they are and which part of the increasingly politicized Russian populace might tick their name on March 4.

    With less than a month remaining until the Kremlin vote, the presidential campaign is picking up steam nationwide. RIA Novosti offers a brief look at the five candidates who made it on the ballot, detailing how they got there, who they are and which part of the increasingly politicized Russian populace might tick their name on March 4.

    The five Russian presidential candidates have been arranged according to alphabetical order in the English language.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Sergei Mironov

    The undecided one

    Age: 58

    Career path:

    Shakespeare would have a field day with Sergei Mironov, but not necessarily in a flattering way. A friend of current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin from their St. Petersburg days in the 1990s, Mironov in 2001 got the cushy job of speaker for the Federation Council, the parliament’s upper chamber. In 2006, he was also made the head of the newly created A Just Russia, a Kremlin spoiler for the Communists, which is where his troubles began. A Just Russia gradually discovered the only way to political survival was to target the ruling United Russia, not the Communists, but the party in power found it no fun when its own ratings started to sag. Mironov struggled to balance his attacks on the ruling party with his personal loyalty to Putin – who heads United Russia – but found it increasingly hard to do, especially after United Russia ousted him from the Federation Council job, pushing him toward an opposition stance he has no visible desire of embracing.

    Most of A Just Russia is decidedly anti-Kremlin, with party leaders co-staging anti-government protests in Moscow this winter, but Mironov is the sole prominent exception, or at least that is how the voters see him. If the party has fielded anyone else other than him for the presidential race, the wild card could have had a good stab at carrying the protest vote. But nominating Mironov, who ran in 2004 even while professing support for Putin and winning 0.75 percent of the vote, would put off the malcontents, many of whom allege this is exactly why Mironov was put forth in the first place. To his credit, Mironov has made some bold statements, being the only candidate on the ballot who supported the opposition’s demands for the next president to implement political reforms and resign within a year or two. But it will take more than a few daring promises to undo the reputation of a Kremlin man that Mironov spent years to develop. The pro-government voters, meanwhile, have no need for him because they already have Putin.

    Presidential candidacy polls:

    Levada Center (January 20-23): 3 percent

    VTsIOM (February 4-5): 3 percent

    FOM (February 2): 2 percent

     

    Mikhail Prokhorov

    “Not a Kremlin project”

    Age: 46

    Career path:

    Prokhorov is the only new face on the ballot, and the center of this election’s intrigue. A nickel production mogul with an estimated fortune of $18 billion, he was more known for his rumored wild parties and showy antics such as purchasing the New Jersey Nets until last year, when he suddenly dived headfirst into politics, heading The Right Cause, a failed Kremlin project to win the middle-class vote from the late 2000s. The move was pegged for a Kremlin stint, but after Prokhorov launched a vigorous campaign bordering on populism, he was promptly ousted from The Right Cause in what he called a government-orchestrated coup. In December, he announced his presidential bid and was the only one of three independents to have his bid accepted by the Central Elections Commission – again sparking allegations of the Kremlin sanctioning his participation.

    Most voters are convinced Prokhorov is a Kremlin project, but for many, it would not matter: a large part of the populace just wants to vote against Putin, and in this situation, any candidate would do. Though the old and the poor would prefer Communist Gennady Zyuganov, many in the middle class are likely to opt for Prokhorov, who braved the street protests this winter (getting pelted once by snowballs from the anarchists) and who made the right political noises, putting forth an admittedly populist program of reforms that targets the “creative class,” promising political freedoms, improving the economic climate and reining in the bureaucracy – in essence, dismantling the legacy of Putin, who is the main target of protesters. But Prokhorov also flirted with the ruling establishment, saying he would not mind being a prime minister under a victorious Putin, or even keep him as the head of the government if Prokhorov himself ascends to the Kremlin, hardly a popular idea with the “creative class,” which is united in its dislike of Putin.

    Prokhorov promised in January to make it to the runoff against Putin, at the very least. The polls do not back him up so far, with Zyuganov ranking as the most likely runner-up, but the tables may yet turn given Prokhorov’s obvious political drive and immense wealth that would undoubtedly be invested in campaigning.

    Presidential candidacy polls:

    Levada Center (January 20-23): 4 percent

    VTsIOM (February 4-5): 5 percent

    FOM (February 2): 4 percent

     

    Vladimir Putin

    Comeback hopeful

    Age: 59

    Career path:

    A KGB low-ranker in the 1980s and a City Hall official in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Putin catapulted to the ranks of the world’s most powerful men after President Boris Yeltsin endorsed him as his successor in 2000. Putin traded the Kremlin job for the top seat in the government after two presidential stints in 2000-2008 because the Constitution prohibits more than two consecutive presidential terms, but installed in his place Dmitry Medvedev, his loyal retainer who meekly agreed last fall not to seek reelection and trade places with Putin after the March 4 vote.

    Putin’s supporters credit him with bringing stability to the nation after the “turbulent nineties,” reviving the economy and ensuring that teachers, doctors and other state employees no longer live below the poverty line mainly due to windfall from oil and gas revenues. But critics say Putin ushered in a bureaucratic regime, giving state officials unchecked powers in exchange for loyalty, which resulted in political stagnation, skyrocketing corruption and a dismal economic climate. Russia ranked 143rd of 183 countries in the Transparency International’s latest corruption rating, and capital outflow in 2011 stood at $84 billion.

    No one seriously doubts Putin’s victory at the polls. The real question is, however, whether he would be able to avoid a runoff, which he has never been faced with before: a second round would mean his claims of being a national leader and the legitimacy of his policies are questioned by a growing number of discontents. Putin’s core constituency is still formidable, spanning all kinds of state employees, as well as low-paid residents of small towns and the rural population – the lower classes – but he has been around for 12 years now, and fatigue is beginning to set in even among them. The fledgling middle class, meanwhile, vehemently opposes Putin: it already rallied against him in tens of thousands after his party, United Russia, won the parliamentary elections in December and prepares for a new standoff on March 4, accusing the authorities of foul electoral play. After a decade of political apathy, the country is holding its breath to see how it will all end.

    Presidential candidacy polls:

    Levada Center (January 20-23): 43 percent

    VTsIOM (February 4-5): 53 percent

    FOM (February 2): 47 percent

     

    Vladimir Zhirinovsky

    The loyal voice of populism

    Age: 65

    Career path:

    Who he was before the Perestroika is irrelevant; in post-Soviet Russian history, Zhirinovsky was and still remains the nation’s top populist. With slogans such as “a bloke for every broad, a bottle of vodka for every bloke,” his Liberal Democratic Party led the 1993 parliamentary vote with 22 percent, essentially kickstarting Zhirinovsky’s career that has since encompassed many a brawl with opponents on camera and flaming speeches that laughed in the face of all that is politically correct. But the party never topped itself – though retaining presence in all five Dumas since – and Zhirinovsky’s presidential campaigns in 1991, 1996, 2000 and 2008 fared no better.

    What many believe really ruins Zhirinovsky’s image is his failure to practice what he preaches. Though he excels in lambasting the authorities, his party has always sided with the Kremlin on all important issues in the 2000s, and the voters know that. A case in point is nationalism: the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream political force allowed to flirt with that, but their campaign slogan for the December parliamentary elections, “LDPR for Russians,” was not backed with any legislative action. That goes for Zhirinovsky’s policies in general – he always favored form over substance, and though it wins him support of political greenhorns, especially among the poor and uneducated, it also alienates more demanding middle-class voters.

    Zhirinovsky is the least likely of five candidates to offer any surprises during the campaign: those who like his political eccentrics will vote for him as usual, but he has no new tricks to sway voters outside his usual constituency. The fatigue factor is also there: like Putin and Zyuganov, he has been around too long to intrigue the public. He is still putting on his best show, as evidenced by his speech in the Duma on January 27 – as scathing as anything the anti-government protesters have whipped out – but he’ll need something completely unexpected to convince the populace he is not just all bark and no bite.

    Presidential candidacy polls:

    Levada Center (January 20-23): 7 percent

    VTsIOM (February 4-5): 8 percent

    FOM (February 2): 9 percent

     

    Gennady Zyuganov

    Eternal contender

    Age: 67

    Career path:

    A Party man to the bone, Zyuganov has been a career Communist since the 1970s, and did not quit even when the party no longer was in power. He has been the head of the Communist Party of Russia for 19 years, and in the early 1990s, his name was striking fear in the hearts of Western-loving capitalism supporters nationwide. Zyuganov’s hour of glory came in 1996, when he was a hair’s breadth away from defeating Boris Yeltsin in the presidential race – but he lost. He remained a fixture of the Russian political scene since, and lost two more presidential elections, in 2000 and 2008, but no one really expected him to win either of those.

    The Communists are the most powerful political force in the country not directly controlled by the Kremlin. But that is also not the same as being independent, and critics have often accused Zuyganov and his party of covertly coordinating their actions with the Kremlin in Putin’s times, or probably even earlier. Perhaps a more serious concern, however, is the party’s reluctance to modernize by embracing a European-styled social-democratic stance that could have scored big with both the middle class and the army of state employees. The Communists stick to the past, touting Soviet-era slogans and, occasionally, even Josef Stalin, which mostly impresses their hardcore, but ever-dwindling septuagenarian constituency.

    If the public is tired of Putin, it goes twice as much for Zyuganov, who has been around for two decades and did not accomplish anything, relishing a position of an opposition leader without any real responsibility. But he, along with Mikhail Prokhorov, is one of the two most likely protest candidates, set to sweep the votes of those who just want to vote “against Putin” (not an option directly available on the ballots). He is also a better opponent for Putin in case of a runoff because many middle-class protesters still remember their fear of the Communist revenge from 1996, even if they were too young to vote back then.

    Presidential candidacy polls:

    Levada Center (January 20-23): 11 percent

    VTsIOM (February 4-5): 10 percent

    FOM (February 2): 9 percent

     

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