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Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 12:49 GMT
Putin prepares for power
By Moscow Correspondent Robert Parsons
Tony Blair could be forgiven for looking bemused - only faintly, of course, since protocol would allow no more - but bemused none the less.
He was in St Petersburg as the guest of Russia's president-in-waiting, Vladimir Putin. Mr Blair bent forward to catch his interpreter's words: "Allah is above us," he explained, "below us are goats."
Russia's TV cameras rolled and Mr Putin stood back in satisfaction. He had just been trying to explain to the visiting prime minister that this was the average Chechen's view of the Russians - although the strength of the insult to the Russians had been somewhat lost in the translation.
The gist of it all was that by their arrogance the Chechens had brought war on themselves. Mr Blair might have been confused, but Russian TV viewers understood - and approved.
Mr Putin says he is above electioneering - he just does not have time for it. He is too busy with the affairs of state and, anyway, all that campaigning stuff is a bit undignified.
In another obscure reference, he compared it to selling Tampax and Snickers chocolate bars, and said he would not bother with TV spots or campaign ads.
But the truth is he never stops. Mr Putin is on TV all day, every day, in factories talking to the workers, in universities talking to students, in Chechnya pumping up the army. It is exhausting. One day he is on a jet-fighter flying in to review the troops, the next on a commuter train making jokes about his opponents. A day later he is test-driving the latest Lada.
Do not bother asking what the candidate's policies are though. Nobody knows. Maybe not even the candidate himself. He is simply too busy being the acting president to draw up a programme.
Which brings us to the heart of the mystery. All the polls show Mr Putin set for a massive victory - most probably in the first round. How has it happened?
Ask the punters on the street and they will tell you it is because he can talk in sentences - an unusual achievement among Russia's recent political leaders - and that he is intelligent, honest, tough and young.
For some it is more basic even than that. Earlier this month, Mr Putin's duties took him to the industrial town of Ivanovo, best known in Russia as the town of brides because of the high proportion of women in the local population. The occasion was Women's Day, a major public holiday. Lydia Smirnova stepped forward to tell Mr Putin that his success was all down to the way he walked. She could not resist it.
But the truth is that one issue has dominated this campaign like no other. Vladimir Putin is riding to power on the back of the war in Chechnya and there is nothing his rivals can do to compete. Ideology dominated the last presidential campaign in 1996 - this time it has not had a look in.
Russia may not have defeated the Chechens yet but the orgy of destruction has restored Russian pride. And Mr Putin is the man who has made it possible.
Russians love it when he talks of trashing bandits and caging them like animals. The idea that Russians would demand an end to the war if they only knew its full horror has a fragile basis. They know what their forces have done to Grozny and most approve. It was time to got tough. Mr Putin was right.
The war has gutted the opposition. There are 10 challengers to Mr Putin going into Sunday's vote but between them they have raised hardly a whimper.
I live in the centre of Moscow - if I look carefully I can see the Kremlin from my living room window. But there is nothing around me to suggest Russia is reaching the climax of a critical presidential election. There is no campaigning, there are no bill-boards advertising the charms of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, no leaflets urging the faithful to vote.
Even the rampant nationalist with the mordant wit, Vladimir Zhirinosvsky, is a pale shadow of his former self. By his antics in parliament, he has done more than anyone to discredit democracy in Russia. Perhaps he feels he has fulfilled his role.
A satirical puppet show on independent TV has been merciless. It did a take-off recently of the famous Japanese film, The Seven Samurai, which mocked all the candidates. When Putin-san lays down a challenge to the samurai, alias the hapless presidential candidates, they roll over and refuse to fight. Another sketch depicted them as prostitutes at the service of playboy Putin.
The Communist tiger, which had Boris Yeltsin in such a panic four years ago, has turned out to be a pussy cat. Perhaps Mr Zyuganov has grown too used to striking cosy behind-the-scenes-deals with the Kremlin to really care any more. The man who always collects the silver medal seems resigned to his role. His party is drifting into senility - unable to find a place for itself in post-Communist Russia and unable to fight off terminal decline.
There are really only two questions: will Mr Putin be forced into a second round and can the liberal, pro-democracy candidate Grigory Yavlinsky come from behind to snatch second place from Mr Zyuganov? The answer is almost certainly 'no' in both cases. Oh, and one more question: how many Russians will bother to vote at all?
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