Putin juggernaut sweeps away all in its path
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Putin juggernaut sweeps away all in its path
By Tom Parfitt and David Wastell in Moscow
With television cameras recording his every movement, Vladimir Putin chats with pensioners, inspects troops and puts on a naval uniform to stride across the decks of a nuclear submarine - just like any politician up for election.
Except that in Russia, where voters go to the polls in two weeks' time, there are few signs of opposition to his triumphant cruise to a second four-year term as president. Aided by the compliant media, and the weakness of candidates who have stood against him but are already fading into obscurity, Mr Putin is heading for a crushing victory.
He dominates Russia's state-owned television channels so comprehensively that he can well afford to honour his pledge not to campaign directly for the election. Rival candidates have struggled to get a look in.
Last week, film of him signing children's hockey sticks in Siberia took precedence over a serious diplomatic dispute: the arrest of two Russian spies in Qatar on suspicion of assassinating a former Chechen president. Mr Putin's sacking of the entire Russian government a few days earlier, a device to remove his prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, generated only a brief ripple of excitement.
It is an extraordinary and somewhat unnerving achievement by the 51-year-old former KGB colonel, who was plucked from obscurity by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, before being anointed to take over the Kremlin four years ago. Since then, he has undergone an astonishing transformation into an symbol of power.
Opposition commentators recall the presidential poll in 2000 when, asked by a journalist for details of his programme, Mr Putin replied: "I won't tell." As he did then, the president has refused to take part in televised election debates, and his opponents are incensed that news broadcasts are skewed to boost his image.
Faced with Mr Putin's soaring popularity ratings - which are close to 70 per cent - his rivals have all but given up the ghost. None of the six candidates running against him has scored more than four per cent since the campaign began last month. All but two have openly debated pulling out, and one, Ivan Rybkin, fled to London claiming that he feared for his personal safety.
The economist Sergei Glazyev, Mr Putin's leading opponent, who is attempting to establish a Russian equivalent of European social democracy, has been savagely attacked in the media. He blames Mr Putin's campaign managers for orchestrating articles that have compared him to Hitler and linked him with Boris Berezovsky, the deeply unpopular exiled billionaire.
"They organised a tender between PR companies to see who could prepare the best lies about Glazyev," he told visiting journalists.
Irina Khakamada, a self-styled liberal crusader told supporters that she had no chance of winning. "I am moving forward as if to the executioner's block," she said. Ms Khakamada and the Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov were rebuffed when they lodged an official complaint about excessive television coverage of Mr Putin.
Executives at the state channel Rossiya defended their decision to break into normal programming to broadcast a 29-minute speech by the President at Moscow State University, including several minutes of his supporters waiting in reverential silence for him to start. They said it didn't amount to campaigning.
The question was decided by the Central Election Commission, where Alexander Vechniakov, the almost expressionless chairman, sounds like a throwback to the Soviet era as he lists campaign statistics - from the 250 million roubles (£4.7 million) candidates' spending limit to the one million Russians who will be employed in the labour-intensive election. Last week the commission ruled that the disputed bulletin was justified as "information programming".
Mr Putin's supporters dismiss claims that his huge lead is a result of media manipulation. "The President has taken it upon himself to put the country in order," said Yury Borodin, 65, a pensioner who heads a team of 26 unpaid volunteers at the public information centre of Mr Putin's campaign in Moscow. "There is stability. Taxes are collected. Pensions and wages are paid. The state is in control of regions that were a law unto themselves five years ago."
Mr Putin's critics say that his consolidation of power has been achieved by installing a clique of former secret services agents and military men in the Kremlin.