Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 56

While Konstantin Titov, who has the support of some 1 percent of presidential preference poll respondents, represents no threat to Putin, the charge that Putin is a tool of the oligarchs could prove to be harmful and bring Putin’s share of the vote on March 26 below 50 percent, which would mean that he would have to face the runner-up in the second round of voting on April 16. Indeed, some observers have speculated that some of the oligarchs and/or members of the Kremlin inner circle have been working to ensure that Putin’s support dips below 50 percent so that there will have to be a run-off. According to this theory, these oligarchs/insiders are calculating that if Putin is forced into a run-off, he will need their money and the support of their media, and thus be more beholden to them. A poll taken by the Public Opinion Foundation, the results of which were released over the weekend, found that Putin’s approval rating had dropped to 48 percent, down from 53 the previous week (ORT, March 18).

Putin himself addressed this issue obliquely in his Mayak interview. He said that winning in a first round was the “optimal” variant, given that the first round will cost the state one-and-a-half billion rubles (more than US$50 million) and a second round would cost an additional billion (more than US$35 million). He did not indicate why the elections would cost so much, but charged that certain unnamed “political figures” are “pushing… the population toward thwarting the elections in general.” He explained that he was referring to the “Against All” movement, which is divided between those urging voters to check the “against all” box on the ballot and others urging a boycott of the vote. Putin alleged that the movement is aimed at forcing a run-off or a nullification on the basis of an insufficient turnout, and called this position “amoral” and aimed at making things worse for ordinary Russians (RTR, March 19). If fewer than 50 percent of Russia’s eligible voters go to the polls on March 26, the election will be nullified and rescheduled for three months later. This could make things very difficult for Putin, given the likelihood of a protracted guerrilla war in Chechnya and the possibility that oil prices will drop precipitously, which would make the government’s finances more precarious. Both factors could eat away further at Putin’s popularity.