Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 2

According to Russia’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within three months of the day Boris Yeltsin resigned from that post–December 31, 1999. But while Russian media reported over the holiday weekend that it has been tentatively scheduled for March 26, Marat Valgai, head of Russia’s Constitutional Court, who met yesterday with Acting President Vladimir Putin, indicated afterward that the vote might take place even sooner, though he noted that there are “some uncertainties” over “the issue of holding [the] election earlier than [the prescribed] three months.” Valgai said that Putin is “weighing” his plans according to the provisions of the constitution (NTV, January 3).

Holding the election earlier than the end of March would give Putin–whose re-election is already being treated as a foregone conclusion by Russia’s two state-owned television channels–an additional advantage against his likely opponents. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) leader Yevgeny Primakov are undoubtedly all still reeling from meteoric rise of Unity, the Kremlin-backed pro-Putin bloc, which nearly tied the Communists in the December 19 State Duma elections. Were the presidential vote moved to, say, sometime in February, it is difficult to see how any of Putin’s opponents would have time to organize any campaign, let alone an effective one. Even if the vote is held on March 26, candidates will have only until February 10 to gather the requisite 1 million signatures to register for the ballot (Reuters, January 2).

The constitution, however, gives the right to set the date for a presidential election to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, and there are indications that the regional leaders who comprise the council will stick to March 26. Sergei Sobyanin, head of the Federation Council’s Committee for Constitutional Legislation, said today that that date remains the most likely one, that members of his committee had met and agreed with lawyers from the Central Election Committee on March 26, and that the council will hold an emergency session tomorrow to decide the issue. He noted, however, that Russia’s election laws require that the law governing presidential elections be published in the government’s newspapers and that if this is not done, or if the Federation Council does not come to a decision, then the Central Election Committee will have to set the date, meaning that the election could take place as late as one or two weeks after March 26 (Russian agencies, January 4).

It therefore seems unlikely that the vote will take place sooner than constitutionally scheduled. Even so, the event is likely to look more like a coronation than an election. That, at least, is what the Kremlin is banking on. On January 2, deputy Kremlin administration chief Igor Shabdurasulov said that it was “unrealistic” to assume that anyone but Putin could win, and added that it would be best if Putin won more than 50 percent of the vote in a first round, because a run-off vote would “waste time” (Russian agencies, January 2).

Shabdurasulov’s cockiness is warranted. Primakov, the only figure who might once have stood a chance against Putin, declared his intention to run for president on the eve of the December 19 parliamentary vote. His OVR bloc, however, fared much worse in that race than originally anticipated, winning (at 13 percent) less than half the vote won by Unity, which rode the nationalist wave set off by the war in Chechnya. OVR’s poor showing, combined with the likelihood that Primakov will be the object of a massive discreditation campaign by state television in the presidential contest, has led some observers to predict that the former prime minister will withdraw his candidacy. That would leave Putin facing off against Zyuganov, Yavlinsky and the ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with the outcome so obvious that it is not even worth mentioning.