Presidential election in Russia a round up just a few days before the vote


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


14 March 2004

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

The announcement made by President Vladimir Putin dissolving the government three weeks before the presidential election on 14th March and the appointment of Mikhaïl Fradkov as Prime Minister helped considerably in livening up a somewhat dreary and lifeless electoral campaign resulting from a lack of any real competition.

It was a surprise when on 24th February the President announced in a speech on the leading state television channel that in the name of speeding up the reforms he was dismissing his entire government team. "In line with the powers granted to me by article 117 of the Constitution I have decided to dissolve the government", he declared.. "This resignation is not linked to the government's work, that I believe to be satisfactory overall, but more to a desire to show which direction I feel the country should take after 14th March", he added. He also made a point of saying that "the citizens of Russia had the right to know the identity of the person I will present as head of government". Vladimir Putin finally mentioned his concern about saving time and being efficient more rapidly after his re-election that is more than likely on 14th March.

After this announcement Irina Khakamada, a liberal candidate in the presidential election called on the other candidates to withdraw with her from the contest in protest against this electoral "farce". The Communist Sergueï Glaziev for his part declared that "the Kremlin's bureaucarcy had but one idea in mind: to control the political arena entirely" but he also maintained his desire to "fight to the end". On 21st February Elena Bonner, widow of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Andreï Sakharov, and the liberal party Iabloko also called on the four other candidates in opposition to Vladimir Putin to withdraw and boycott the presidential election. "The participants in this pseudo democratic election do not enjoy the same rights. In these circumstances the only way for people with a democratic mind to protest is not to vote", wrote the leader of the movement Grigori Iavlinski on his internet site. Former dissident Elena Bonner called people "not to take part in this State scale lie. The refusal to take part in the presidential election is a fight to re-establish nation-wide the real institution of elections as the most important democratic instrument, instead of an imitation that is imposed on us today", she declared. Finally on 5th March Ivan Rybkine, president of Liberal Russia and a close friend of businessman Boris Berezovski, who took refuge in London after his mysterious five-day-long disappearance in February, decided to withdraw his candidature, along with a declaration and a call to boycott the election he denounced "a campaign of boundless pressure".

Vladimir Putin therefore decided to change his team and get rid of his Prime Minister Mikhaïl Kassianov, who was close to former president Boris Yeltsin and who had recently expressed his concern after the arrest and imprisonment on 25th October last of billionaire Mikhaïl Khodorkovkski, chairman of IoukosSibneft, the world's fourth group in the oil industry. "I am extremely worried. The freezing of shares of a quoted company is a new phenomena the effects of which are difficult the evaluate, it is a new form of pressure", he declared. The person whom everyone expected to be dismissed with every day that passed over the last four years since his appointment in 2000 did in fact manage to retain his functions during Vladimir Putin's first mandate. Mikhaïl Kassianov, who became Finance Minister in 1999, distinguished himself by managing to negotiate with the London Club in 2000 a rescheduling of the foreign debt and the cancellation of a debt of 12 billion dollars. His departure heralds the end of the oligarchs, businessmen who built their empire during the privatisations in Yeltsin's time, and the victory of the "siloviki" (strongmen), figures from the "armed" administrations such as the police, the army and the secret services who believe that the country's riches have been sold off and that it is high time the State assumed its true place.

The appointment of Mikhaïl Fradkov on March 1st as Prime Minister also came as a surprise to political analysts. The new Prime Minister is a civil servant devoid of any personal ambition and completely unknown to the man on the street. Mikhaïl Fradkov, who is 53 years old and from Kouïbychev in the region of Samara is a trained engineer and was economic adviser at the USSR Embassy in India and then became Foreign Trade Minister (1997-1998), and Trade Minister (1999-2000). In 2000 he was appointed deputy director of the Security Council by Vladimir Putin; following this he was chief of the tax police until the dissolution of this organism in March 2003. Since then he has been Russia's representative within the EU. His appointment bears witness to the President's desire to govern with his own team from now on. During his next mandate the Head of State will have at his disposal loyal men and a secure parliament. If Vladimir Putin wanted to show that he would continue reforms after 14th March, some political analysts believe on the other hand that the choice of Mikhaïl Fradkov indicates the contrary and that the next government will be more technical than political and rather more a government of stagnation.

The European Union, via spokesperson, Reijo Kemppinen, welcomed Vladimir Putin's choice believing that this was a demonstration of the importance Russia is granting to its relations with the Union and that the appointment of Mikhaïl Fradkov should make easier. The choice of Prime Minister was unsurprisingly approved by the Douma on 5th March, the lower chamber of Parliament, by a wide majority of its members (352 votes in favour, 58 against and 24 abstentions). Mikhaïl Fradkov declared that the number of ministries would be reduced significantly (23 at present) in his government and that from now on there would only be one deputy Prime Minister (instead of six in the outgoing government). This is a post that will be given to the economist and deputy of United Russia, Alexandre Joukov. The Prime Minister also drew up the list of priorities of Vladimir Putin's second mandate, quoting the "development of high technology, an efficient social policy and the continuation of fiscal reform". Finally Mikhaïl Fradkov maintained that his government would work towards the reform of the justice system in order to "make the legal authorities independent, de jure and de facto".

Although Vladimir Putin had officially relinquished his air time on State TV and radio that he offered to his rivals, he is however omnipresent in the State media. Hence he was able to present his electoral programme live on the TV channel Rossia. The re-broadcast of his speech led to the Communist candidate Nikolaï Kharitonov and liberal Irina Khakamada to lodging a complaint with the electoral Commission. Vladimir Putin's adversaries were rejected by the latter that maintained "the channels decided to broadcast the electoral speech of the candidate Vladimir Putin in their information programmes themselves. The speech by the latter included his electoral programme of high public interest. We are right to believe that the aim of the channels was to inform the electorate and not to lead his electoral campaign". Irina Khakamada also protested against NTV's refusal to broadcast political debates during prime time. The channel justified its refusal with the pretext that "these debates did not interest the population".

The Kremlin, fearing voter apathy on 14th March, wants, via the appointment of a new Prime Minister, to stimulate the electoral campaign and rekindle the population's interest. We should remember that half of the Russians must vote for the election to be declared valid. An invalidation would lead to the organisation of a new presidential election within the next four months. The Prime Minister would assume the presidential functions during this period. Everywhere in Russia local authorities are trying to stave off abstention. Hence some companies are providing a bonus on condition of taking part in the election, hospitals are requesting, before accepting patients, that the latter are correctly registered on the electoral roll.

According to the latest opinion poll published by the Funds for Public Opinion, Vladimir Putin is guaranteed to win the presidential election with around 70% of the vote. The Communist party, Nikolaï Kharitonov, is due to win slightly more than 3%, Sergueï Glaziev, and Irina Khakamada less than 2%.

Finally on 18th February the Douma rejected, by a wide majority, a proposal that aimed to increase the presidential mandate from four to seven years (51 representatives voted in favour, 347 against and two abstained.) The extension of the length of the mandate might however become the focus of political debate again in the near future since, according to the Constitution, the President cannot undertake more than two mandates.

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