Onetime KGB Spy Now Head of State

By Dettmer, Jaime | Insight on the News, April 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Onetime KGB Spy Now Head of State

Dettmer, Jaime, Insight on the News

As expected, Vladlmir Putin was democratically elected president of Russia. What remains to be seen, however, is where this onetime spymaster will lead the country.

There was an eerie feel on election night in the old Pravda building, which houses more than a dozen newspapers, admittedly now mostly week-lies. The building was empty with the exception of the fifth floor, where journalists from the English-language Moscow Times struggled to meet the 1:30 a.m. deadline for their election special.

The rest of the building was shrouded in darkness as though everything had been written in advance by the other papers -- none of which bothered to break their publishing schedules to copy the Moscow Times with a special edition of their own.

But why bother? There was no suspense to the March 26 Russian presidential election, unlike the nail-biting 1996 contest when ailing incumbent Boris Yeltsin was forced into a runoff and eventually overcame a tough electoral challenge from Communist Gennady Zyuganov. This time the Krem lin was firmly in control -- from the start of campaigning it was clear the result was a foregone conclusion and that Yeltsin's handpicked successor, the steely-eyed former KGB spy Vladimir Putin, was a sure thing.

Only in the final four or five days was there any reason for Kremlin jitters. A series of three polls suggested that Putin's support was eroding. The Kremlin feared that he might not secure the minimum 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a second round of balloting.

In any event, such misgivings were misplaced -- although Putin came in with little to spare. Another week and it might have been different.

That Putin did not secure 60 percent or more of the vote is a cause for hope, as far as opposition liberals and democratic reformers are concerned. While their flag-carrier, Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko Party, attracted only a dismaying 5 percent -- half of The 10 percent he aimed for there were consolations.

First, there were signs that some anti-Putin voters opted to engage in tactical voting and chose Zyuganov as the best bet to stop the acting president from winning on the first ballot. Most opinion polls in the weeks ending up to the election predicted a 20 to 25 percent share for the Communist. On election day he got almost 30 percent. That extra 5 percent most likely was not provided by committed Communists or sudden converts to the hammer and sickle but by Russians casting around for some way to indicate their antipathy toward Putin.

The tactical voting element may have been even more pronounced than 5 percent. Putin's nationalist message appears to have appealed to Communist voters: He beat Zyuganov in 25 of the 30 regions in Russia's Red Belt, the arc of provinces and districts that have been the backbone of the Communist Party for the last decade. Zyuganov even lost in his native Orel region.

Second, the fact that Putin secured a little more than half of the vote and not more indicates that there are limits to how much Kremlin manipulation the electorate is prepared to accept -- a good harbinger for the future.

In the three months since Putin was catapulted into the acting presidency following Yeltsin's abrupt Dec. 31, 1999, resignation, the Kremlin ensured blanket coverage for Putin in the state-controlled media. The two state-owned TV channels that dominate the airwaves in Russia obligingly provided Communist-era cult-of-personality coverage. They also launched harsh attacks against his rivals, most notably Yavlinsky, accusing him of accepting money from foreign and Jewish interests and of spending more than the legal election limit.

The country's 89 regional governors were pressed by the Kremlin into service and, with just one or two exceptions, offered their allegiance, bringing with them their local media outlets, most of which in provincial Russia are firmly under the thumb of local political bosses. …

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