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Europe

Russian Election or Referendum?

Vladimir Putin is set for another term as president after Russians go to the polls on Sunday. But is there any real competition offering an alternative to the ex-KGB man?

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Putin could be excused for writing his acceptance speech in advance.

The result of the general election on Sunday is practically a foregone conclusion. Polls say Vladimir Putin will garner 70 to 80 percent of the Russian electorate's votes; the strongest of his six challengers can only bank on 5 percent.

The enthusiasm for the KGB agent-turned-politician stems from the public perception that Putin put Russia on the right road economically after he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in March 2000. Since then, the country's gross domestic product has risen every year at a rate of around 5 percent. The economy, largely fed by oil and natural gas exports and foreign investors attracted by political stability and liberal reforms, has been robust. Inflation has been fairly low, and wages, pensions and foreign debts are largely paid on time.

Putin has pushed through needed reforms, key among them a law permitting the sale of farmland for the first time since the czarist era. He reined in Russia's unruly regional leaders who had flourished under Yeltsin as well as powerful heads of the business community. Those who didn't comply were chased into exile or thrown in jail, like oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently biding his time in a Moscow prison under charges of tax evasion.

His power was further cemented by sweeping wins in December's parliamentary elections that gave the Kremlin-loyal United Russia party a two-thirds majority in the Duma, and effectively deprived opposition parties of influence over the president's policies.

Developing a Teflon-coating

Geiselnahme in Moskau Geiseln mit Geiselnehmer

Three women hostages and one of their captors, a woman, are seen inside the theater seized by armed Chechens in Moscow, Oct. 25, 2002.

But Putin has had to weather storms during his first term too. He faced harsh criticism when he was perceived as reacting too slowly to the sinking of the Russian atomic submarine and subsequent death of 118 sailors in the Barents Sea in August 2000. But he appears to have learned his lesson from that public relations disaster. In October 2002, when Chechen rebels took over 800 Moscow theatre-goers hostage, he handled the crisis with aplomb. He emerged practically unscathed after security forces stormed the theatre and 129 hostages died -- most of them succumbing to police nerve gas.

Despite criticism from human rights organizations, Chechnya didn't turn into the Achilles heel it had been for Yeltsin, as violence remained relatively low. At the same time, the Sept. 11 attacks in Washington and New York afforded Putin an opportunity to forge closer ties to U.S. President George W. Bush. Putin was able to defend the Kremlin's fight against Chechen separatists in the breakaway republic as Russia's fight against terrorism.

Independent media silenced

Putin's critics allege that he rules autocratically and is not committed to democracy. Civil liberties are said to be eroding. The president has muzzled the country's critical media, bringing television under state control and severely limiting Russians' access to independent news sources. During a recent visit to Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed concern about the lack of free media.

Putin's grip remains tight. While elsewhere cabinet revamps are interpreted as admissions of weakness, his reshuffle on Tuesday was considered a move to further entrench the 51-year-old in power. His new, streamlined assembly of ministers is dominated by prominent economic liberals and modernizers who will help Putin push through more reforms after his almost certain reelection.

Putin's opponents can only hope for low voter turnout on Sunday. If less than 50 percent of the electorate casts a ballot, the vote will be declared invalid and new elections will be called. The head of Russia's Yabloko liberal party, Grigory Yavlinsky, has called on voters to boycott the poll, saying a boycott is "the citizen's position, a moral position, an important signal to society." But at the same time, Yavlinsky feared the authorities might fake the election results if participation was indeed too low.

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