Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 46

The March 4 warning by Acting President Vladimir Putin’s campaign team to the media–and specifically the Segodnya newspaper–that it might use “all means available in its arsenal” for an “asymmetrical answer” to alleged “lies,” is rather ironic, given that it was supposed to be an answer to charges that Putin is unfairly using his advantages as an incumbent head of state. It was also rather extreme: As Yevgeny Kiselev, host of NTV television’s weekly program Itogi, noted yesterday, threatening an “asymmetrical response” is the kind of language used by states when they are preparing a military strike (NTV, March 5). The Putin team’s demarche seems particularly disproportionate given that it is highly unlikely that the CEC would even consider disqualifying Putin for violating election laws. Thus the Putin campaign headquarters’ attack on Segodnya came be seen as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing campaign against Media-Most and its overall attempt to get Russia’s main media outlets to toe the official line.

NTV, which is part of Media-Most, was recently the target of apparent indirect threats from the Kremlin. Last month, Rem Vyakhirev, chairman of the Gazprom natural gas monopoly, which owns 30 percent of NTV, warned that his company might reconsider its investment in the channel on the basis of NTV’s critical reporting on the war in Chechnya (see the Monitor, February 17). Several days later, the Supreme Arbitration Court upheld a decision by the Antimonopoly Ministry to cancel an arrangement by which the state gives NTV airtime for the same reduced rates paid by state television channels. In 1996, then President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree giving NTV the reduced rates, after the station strongly supported his re-election campaign. While the court decision does not overturn the Yeltsin decree, Putin could now use the court decision as a pretext to sign a decree ending NTV’s access to discount airtime (Moscow Times, February 19).

The Putin team’s overall touchiness seems related to its fears that voter turnout will be low on March 26, thereby robbing the acting president of the chance to win more than 50 percent of the vote and thus winning in one round. A first round victory would give Putin a much stronger mandate. The main factor in low voter turnout, of course, would be the widespread assumption that Putin’s victory is inevitable. Putin last week denounced attempts to lower the turnout, and one of his key campaign strategists, Gleb Pavlovsky, warned that opponents of the acting president–including some oligarchs, regional leaders and “a significant part of the old Yeltsin apparatus”–might secretly try to bolster the movement to boycott the elections (Moscow Times, March 2). This would explain why Putin and his supporters are playing down the inevitability of his victory. In an interview yesterday with the BBC, Putin said that he did not believe he is “assured of victory” (Russian agencies, March 5). This might also explain why polls featured on state television show his numbers below 50 percent. RTR state television yesterday cited the results of a poll taken by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, in which 46 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Putin.