Saturday, February 07, 2004

In Moscow, Bombs and Extensions and Missing Presidential Candidates, Oh My!

March 14th, the Russians are going to the polls. They are in Pre-Pick-a-President mode, if you will. In that oligarchic, historically despotic state, elections are a remarkable thing to observe.

With six weeks to go, the Presidentially controlled Russian Duma (Parliament) unexpectedly scheduled a vote which could potentially extend Putin's term of office until 2018. Analysts are now debating whether this is simply a "trial ballon" or creeping dicatorship. This "trial ballon" seems to have quite a bit of helium. Calls for a lifetime Presidential term for Putin are on the rise, and this weekend's bombing of the Moscow Metro has unleashed ever louder calls for a Stalinist revival in Russian internet chatrooms.

Certainly, in the past, Mr. Putin has used the specter of terrorism in Russia to his political advantage. Recall the 2000 elections and the speculation that Russia's Security Service, the FSB, was actually responsible for the bombings, not the Chechen independence movement as was claimed by the authorities. Once again, Mr. Putin has already laid full blame on the Chechens for the latest Metro bombing:

Putin, addressing reporters alongside the president of ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, said there was no doubt fugitive Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov had masterminded the attack.

''We do not need any indirect confirmation. We know for certain that Maskhadov and his bandits are linked to this terrorism,'' he said.

''I do not rule out that this could be used both in debates taking place in the Russian presidential election and as a lever to put pressure on the current head of state.'' A spokesman for the fugitive Chechen leader said neither Maskhadov nor his separatist government were ''connected to this bloody provocation and (they) unequivocally condemn it''.

Mr. Putin, whose polling numbers verge on the unbelievable (over 70 percent) is so confident of his reelection that, according to the IHT even the location of his campaign headquarters is "secret." Nonetheless, the presidential candidate of Putin-opponent Boris Berezovsky's Liberal Russia party, Ivan Rybkin has been missing since Thursday. Rybkin was certainly a non-threat to Putin in the upcoming election but he may still be a nuisance and an embarrassment. For one thing, he supports negotiations with the Chechens. For another, he has directly accused Putin of being Russia's most powerful oligarch.

According to the AP:

Rybkin this week unofficially launched his campaign with a full-page open letter in the newspaper Kommersant accusing Putin of being Russia's most powerful oligarch and of ruling by fear. In the letter, Rybkin said power and money are inseparable under dictatorship, and he claimed to have information linking Putin to big business.

Rybkin, a national security council chief under former President Boris Yeltsin, has pushed in recent years for talks between the Kremlin and Chechen rebels on ending the fighting in the breakaway republic. Putin firmly refuses to countenance negotiations.

And in the Moscow Times we read:

Former Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin, who is backed by businessman Boris Berezovsky, complained of harassment earlier this week after officials from the Prosecutor General's Office searched his offices, seizing computers and detaining a campaign worker.

Maybe someone doesn't want anyone taking potshots at "trial ballons."


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