Who are the four men challenging Vladimir Putin in Russia’s March 4 presidential election? And how are they campaigning in a race where Putin’s victory is a foregone conclusion?
Over the past week I joined each of the four candidates at campaign stops around Moscow. Two of the candidates didn’t even bother meeting with voters after their speeches. Three of the events were closed to the public, and only one of them generated any feeling bordering on enthusiasm.
I call Putin’s four challengers his willing helpers because each of them has decided to run even though defeat is certain. Their motivations may be different, but they all provide Putin with the alibi of a political competition that doesn’t exist.
I begin this series of posts with Sergei Mironov, 59, a geologist who lists collecting rocks as his main hobby on his web site (click here for the English version). Mironov is also the head of the social democratic Fair Russia party, a Kremlin project originally designed to create the illusion of a parliamentary opposition. Mironov ran in the 2004 presidential election on the dubious platform that he actually supported incumbent candidate Putin. An opinion poll published by the state-owned VTsIOM research company on Monday showed that Mironov will come in last place, with 7.7 percent of the vote, while Putin will win with 58.6 percent.
Fair Russia held a rally on Monday to protest the lack of airtime Putin’s opponents get on the three state-run, national TV channels. Because Mironov was scheduled to make a rare public appearance at the demonstration, I decided to attend. The protest was taking place next to the giant headquarters of Channel One.
Despite his party’s complaint about unfair coverage, Mironov has hardly been doing anything to make news. In fact, almost all of the scheduled campaign events listed on Fair Russia’s web site are interviews with TV and radio stations. Of course those token appearances don’t compare with the nightly new reports of Putin’s good deeds. But they also can’t hide that Mironov’s own campaign is a sham.
I took Moscow’s monorail for the first time to get to the rally. It’s a short line connecting two metro stations in the northern outskirts of the city. While the train looks sleek and modern, it’s more like an elevated tram that wobbles its way over warehouses and avenues. I got off at the Teletsentr stop between the Channel One building and the Ostankino TV tower, which soars half a kilometer into the sky.
Across the white frozen surface of Ostankino Pond, I could already see the fluttering yellow flags of Fair Russia. I passed through one of the two metal detectors and joined the crowd. Tea was being served to the couple hundred protesters, who were almost all wearing yellow vests with the party logo. The average age seemed to be about 60.
The rally began punctually at 1 p.m. with a skit played to ear-splitting music. A young man entered the stage wearing a cardboard box that represented a TV set. He was in chains, and the words “Vulgarity, Violence, Venality” were written on the television’s screen – until a yellow-vested Fair Russia activist liberated him, revealing the words “Objectivity, Humanism, Culture.” The applause was restrained.
Nikolai Levichev, the thin, bespectacled chief of Fair Russia’s parliamentary faction, took to the stage, accompanied by Mironov, wearing a parka with a fur-lined hood. A dozen party officials, all of them male, followed. After a few introductory words, Levichev handed the microphone over to Mironov. It was no more than -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), which thankfully made for short speeches.
“Dear comrades,” Mironov began in his jowly warble.
The constitution is being violated, namely the article that Russia is a “social state,” Mironov said. Healthcare and education are supposed to be free, but in reality both cost money.
He then complained about coverage on national TV. “Why does Vladimir Putin have three times more airtime than the other candidates?” he said. In some places, Fair Russia campaign ads aren’t being shown. And if that wasn’t bad enough, violence and general immorality dominate the airwaves. When he becomes president, Mironov will establish a public oversight commission to monitor television. “I will achieve real changes for every citizen of Russia,” he said.
Nobody knows why Mironov wants to be president. It seems he himself isn’t quite sure. Fair Russia, despite its origins as a fake opposition party, has several well-respected and experienced leaders who have taken a principled stand against Putin’s government – people like budget expert Oksana Dmitriyeva or security specialist Gennady Gudkov.
There’s nothing wrong about Mironov; there’s just nothing right about him. After Putin’s United Russia party unceremoniously deposed Mironov as the head of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, last year, he ramped up his criticism of the government. Yet it’s hard to take any of it seriously. When the organizers of the last big anti-Putin rally invited him to speak to the crowd, Mironov declined, saying no other presidential candidates were speaking and three minutes weren’t enough time.
At yesterday’s rally he didn’t speak much longer. The microphone went back to Levichev, who shouted: “Mironov is our president! Hurrah!” The crowd repeated the words like parishioners in a church.
I scanned the stage. Mironov was gone. I pushed my way to the backstage area, where I found the candidate fielding a question from an unknown TV station. I could barely make out a single word, but before I knew it, Mironov was saying “that’s it” and purposefully marched off to his car. Not even a quarter of an hour had passed since the beginning of the rally.
I returned to the stage. A string of speakers followed. All of them spoke with more conviction than Mironov. I recognized Dmitry Gudkov, 32, the son of Gennady and a first-term Duma deputy. He is earnest, articulate and good-looking – excellent preconditions for a political career. “No to censorship!” he shouted into the microphone. On the backdrop of the stage, a comic-book depiction of a gallant Mironov loomed behind him.
While the stage was occupied largely by young men, the front row of the protesters consisted mainly of older women, many of them holding pre-printed signs. “For social justice in life and on the TV screen!” read one. A somber babushka held a hand-made sign that said: “Let fairness onto the screen.”
I was curious as to who these Mironov supporters were. I moved to the back of the crowd where it would be easier to talk to people. I saw a solitary young woman wearing a Fair Russia vest. What brought a young person out into this crowd of oldsters? I introduced myself. She looked at me blankly and just shook her head. No questions.
I tried my luck with a gaggle of older women, some of them holding Fair Russia flags. They eyed me suspiciously. “We have our interests! We support Fair Russia!” said one. No more comment.
Another woman in a black coat and bright pink lipstick plucked up some courage. “There needs to be more respect for the older generation,” she declared. “They’re forgetting about us!”
A third woman in a blue and yellow parka, complained that the people who now work in the kindergartens don’t know Russian properly because they come from the North Caucasus region.
I asked her why she supported Mironov. What distinguishes him from Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist?
“Zyuganov is also good. But you can vote for only one of them” she explained to me.
All three women were from Moscow. They said they’d worked as election monitors during the disputed December parliamentary elections that sparked the largest anti-government protests in 12 years over charges of vote-rigging. The third woman said she had been to all three big demonstrations.
But why vote when the result is already known?
“This isn’t a fair election,” volunteered a mustachioed older man in a camouflage parka and glasses. “But it’s necessary to go and vote for the future.”
It was 2:05, the rally was over. The snow-packed area before the stage cleared out in a matter of minutes. Marching music blared as the crowd dispersed. I asked the most talkative woman for her name. “Tamara,” she said, declining to give her last name.
The man, who was wearing a Fair Russia baseball cap, stuck around to chat. He was Grigory Semerenko, 61, who had worked in construction all his life and built arenas for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He surprised me when he said he’d vote for Putin.
“He’s stability. He’s tried and tested,” Semerenko said.
“Then why are you at a Fair Russia rally?” I asked. “You’re even wearing their hat.”
Semerenko smiled sheepishly, revealing two gold teeth. “Well, it’s a related party,” he said vaguely. I asked if he was a member of Fair Russia. The only party to which he’d belonged was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and that had been quite enough, he said.
Semerenko said billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the only independent candidate, would still get his chance. “He’s the future. But now we need a president like Putin so there’s a base to grow on.”
I was one of the last to leave the grounds. I asked a policeman at the metal detectors how many protesters he estimated had come. No more than a couple hundred, he said.
“There’s a different way of counting,” he said with a sly smile. “There are eight buses and 32 people in each one. Do the math.”
That’s when I noticed that beyond the brick church next to Ostankino Palace there were about a dozen parked buses. Many of the demonstrators were filing over to them. The buses were old and none of them had Moscow city plates. They were from surrounding regions: Ivanovo, Tula, Kostroma, Tver and Orlov. One had come all the way from Kursk region, 400 kilometers away.
The opposition always accuses United Russia of bussing in people to its rallies. But what does it say about Fair Russia that the party can’t even gather a few hundred Muscovites to attend a rally in their hometown?
I walked back to the monorail station, where I saw a small crowd of people assembled around a woman near the entrance. I had no time to investigate as my train was arriving overhead.
After I’d boarded, I looked back down on the street. I spotted Semerenko walking away from the crowd and entering the station.
It’s then that it dawned on me that the people gathered below were protesters picking up their pay for attending the rally.