There was little during the past fortnight to suggest that Russia was entering the final few weeks of a presidential election. The reason, of course, was that hardly anyone harbored any doubts over who the winner would be. The only real question was whether Acting President Vladimir Putin would win outright–by getting more than 50 percent of the vote on March 26–or whether a run-off would be required. Despite a slight drop in Putin’s ratings, some leading pollsters predicted that the acting president might repeat the 1991 performance of Boris Yeltsin, who won the presidency of Russia (or the RSFSR, as it was then known) in one round of voting, receiving 57 percent of the vote. This explained Putin’s announcement that he would not use the free air time given to all presidential candidate. He dismissed such ads as more appropriate for selling Tampax or Snickers and beneath the dignity of those, like him, engaged in “practical work.” Of course, it did not hurt the acting president that most of the news stories devoted to him on Russia’s two state news channels were little more than one endless–and free–campaign spot.
Whatever the reason, the sense of inevitability multiplied, and Russia’s politicians and sundry movers-and-shakers fell over themselves to endorse the front-runner. Sergei Kirienko and Anatoly Chubais, the “energetic young reformers” who lead the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), engineered an endorsement of Putin in the name of the SPS, effectively subverting the coalition’s decision last month not to endorse any candidate. The move was denounced by other SPS members, including veteran democratic activists like Lev Ponomarev and Yuli Rybakov, who went on to endorse one of Putin’s opponents–Samara Governor Konstantin Titov. Their protest, however, was like a cry in the wilderness. One by one, key figures from the political establishment–from industrialist Arkady Volsky to Boris Gromov, the Afghan War commander and newly-elected Moscow Oblast governor–jumped, very publicly, on the Putin bandwagon. Even Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the erstwhile scourge of the Kremlin and its court “oligarchs,” hinted strongly that he was ready to back the acting head of state.