By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/11/2004 2:02:32 PM ET 2004-03-11T19:02:32

Tall and bespectacled, Irina Khakamada strode into a room filled with 200 university students, neatly turned out to meet a contender in Russia's presidential election.

The event, in an overflowing hotel conference room, could be termed a success. Students crowded around Khakamada, gripping copies of her book, seeking the candidate's autograph.

"Can I shake your hand?" one eager student asked.

But as Khakamada looked out at the crowd, she made a pointed observation.

"Russian television isn't here," began the 48-year-old candidate. "So hopefully we can have a frank and free discussion."

Khakamada, and the other five candidates challenging President Vladimir Putin in Sunday's election, all admit their candidacies are doomed. On the campaign trail with Putin's harshest critic, it's not hard to see why.

State-controlled Russian television, the only way to reach a mass audience here, didn't bother to turn up. Of the events it does cover, it never shows Putin's opposition surrounded by supporters, as was Khakamada's case in St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.

Russian newscasts, meanwhile, almost without fail lead with the activities of Putin, who in recent months has been shown wearing military uniforms, admonishing bureaucrats and opening a trans-Siberian highway.

A Moscow Times survey of the weeks leading up to the elections showed Putin appearing almost three times more often on Russian newscasts. On Tuesday, Rossiya, the main state-controlled channel, aired a 20-minute, unedited clip of the president introducing his new cabinet. Although Rossiya has argued that it is covering the activities of President Putin, rather than candidate Putin, the other presidential contenders were not mentioned in the Tuesday newscast.

"We don't have any chance to be in real, political independent competition," Khakamada said in an interview.

Heavy hand
Other candidates haven't fared any better. Sergei Glazyev, who broke with his pro-Kremlin nationalist party when he decided to challenge Putin, says his campaign is thwarted at every turn. Auditoriums and other venues suddenly cancel his rental contracts. Sometimes the electricity is cut during his speeches.

"Everything is under Putin's control," he said in an interview.

The ominous influence of the Kremlin, felt most often through the actions of loyal local bureaucrats, the security services and the state media, is omnipresent for Putin's opposition. But there's one thing all the candidates admit: the president is immensely popular.

Installed in the Kremlin in 2000 to replace his ailing and erratic predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin, a former KGB agent, has struck a chord with a wide array of supporters.

Millions of Russians who live below the poverty line see his firm hand leading them through the economic chaos that nearly destroyed their lives in the 1990s.

Russia's emerging middle class, devastated by the 1998 collapse of the ruble, Russia's currency, has largely rebuilt, thanks to the economy expanding at more than five percent annually.

Wealthy Russians and foreign investors praise the stability Putin has brought to their investments, through legal, bureaucratic and economic reforms.

"Putin is a symbol of a better life. Russians have very clear rise in living standards. Real incomes grow 10 percent every year," said Andrei Kortunov, a political analyst at The Eurasia Foundation.

"Right now, at least Russians believe that tomorrow will be better than today. That's important."

Whither democracy?
But lost in the middle, the president's critics say, are Russia's hard-won democratic freedoms.

Under Putin, the Kremlin has taken control of the broadcast media, and cowed into submission, often through self-censorship, many of the publications that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin has also surrounded himself with KGB men like himself. One report estimates that one in every four of Putin's government has a background in the military or security services. Sociologist Olga Khrystanovskaya, the study's author, says a Kremlin official paid her a visit.

"The message was clear," Khrystanovskaya said. "'Keep quiet.'"

Another academic, history teacher Igor Dolutsky, a noted author of school textbooks, suddenly found himself out in the cold. In November, his 20th century history textbook was stricken from the Ministry of Education's list of publications acceptable in schools.

Dolutsky's book asked students to debate a quotation from a politician critical of Putin's strong-armed rule, which was described as "authoritarian dictatorship."

The same week, Putin had urged historians to "cultivate a sense of pride" in Russia.

Ahead of meeting Putin in January, Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a front-page op-ed in the Izvestia newspaper that said democracy under Putin "gives us pause."

But analyst Andrew Kuchins, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, notes that the word democracy, as U.S. policymakers read it, is not necessarily a celebrated word in Russia.

"Democracy is associated with chaos. It's associated most closely with what happened in the 1990s," Kuchins said of the financial difficulties immediately after the Soviet Union's collapse that Russians today are gladly leaving behind.

'Personality-driven regime'
With little access to the mass media, and little to offer Russian voters pleased with Putin, the opposition is headed toward an easy defeat. Putin has refused to take part in televised debates, leaving other candidates to launch barbs mainly at each other.

But while Russian television churns out glowing reports about the president, the ratings agency Standard & Poor's warned this week that foreign companies working in Russia are subject to a "centralized and personality-driven political regime."

It was a stinging assessment of Russia's economic and political climate, as Putin pushes the country toward membership in the World Trade Organization. The president has also pledged to double Russia's GDP over the next decade.

"At the moment, it is unclear whether Russia is poised for progress or will regress into an environment where businesses operate under the threat of political intrigues, personal power plays, and ineffective or parasitic bureaucrats," the Standard & Poor's report said.

Ahead of the election, some local media reported new evidence of Putin's government extending its control.

Izvestia reported that an official in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia said the governor's office had been told to produce a high turnout, a sign of Kremlin fears that fewer than 50 percent of the electorate will vote, invalidating the election.

"Sixty-six percent minimum, or else the firing squad," Izvestia quoted the unnamed official as saying.

"Russia is going the wrong way," said Nikolai Rudensky, the deputy editor of Grani.ru, an opposition Web site.

"What was widely perceived as the building of democracy was the restoration of an authoritarian regime. Perhaps an authoritarian regime with a market economy, but this does not make us any happier."

NBC's Preston Mendenhall is based in Russia.

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