The Ice-Cold Strategy

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The 1996 presidential elections in Russia were a cliff-hanger. Boris Yeltsin began with single-digit approval ratings and pleas from some top aides to cancel the polls rather than face certain defeat. He not only risked losing, he risked dying. A major heart attack after the first round was carefully hushed up, but the sight of an overweight candidate with a drinking problem and major health problems boogying on the stage scared his doctors witless. This time there will be no near-death experiences and no onstage dancing, if Vladimir Putin has his way. Russia's acting President wants a dull, predictable election. His team is running a carefully designed noncampaign, which kicked off last week, with the subliminal message that the Putin era will be nothing like the Yeltsin years. In fact, the election is a distraction for Putin. He wants to get it over with fast and turn to what his aides hint will be a new revolution in Russia--sweeping reforms of the economy, bureaucracy, judiciary and government.

So, instead of rallies with teenybopper pop groups, the acting President will "just work," his press minister Mikhail Lesin says. Putin keeps his promises vague: ending poverty, for example, or restoring Russia's place in the world. He aims to win in the first round, on March 26. Both admirers and adversaries think he has a very good chance. The campaign is "boring," says Alexander Oslon, Putin's pollster, with a touch of satisfaction. "No drama." According to his polls, Putin is running about 30% ahead of his nearest rival. Other polls more or less agree. But this deliberate dullness has been achieved with exquisite skill. And he has left his main opponent, Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov, looking even more baffled than usual.

Putin has successfully pitched himself as a modern Everyman. The closest thing to an election manifesto that he has issued, an open letter to the Russian people, is spattered with macho words--"will," "order," "force," "discipline"--that send a shiver of excitement down the spine of the law-and-order advocates in Russia, many of them natural opponents of serious reform. He has also seduced hard-liners with his calls for a strong state and a powerful army. The war in Chechnya is, by official reports at least, going his way. Military commanders declared a victorious end to large-scale offensives in the secessionist republic last week, claiming that the back of the resistance had been broken. Yet Putin's open letter is also an implicit indictment of the inaction, indecision and impotence of the Yeltsin years. This appeals not only to hard-liners but also to Yeltsin's liberal critics, who were sickened by the rampant corruption during Yeltsin's tenure. And Putin has balanced his tough-guy message with images, unusual for a Russian politician, of a caring, even tender-hearted modern male. He has sat red-eyed and verging on tears, on camera, at the funeral of his onetime mentor, the ardently anticommunist, Gorbachev-era reformer Anatoli Sobchak. In all this, Putin has shown his perfect political pitch--his ability to go into any room and immediately strike the right chord.

This has presented his rival Zyuganov with a new set of handicaps. Not that he needs any. The head of the biggest party in Russia, well financed and with a regional network that other politicians would die for, Zyuganov has been unable to extend his power base beyond his party diehards. The main reason is a level of campaigning ineptitude that makes one suspect he is terrified of winning. If Putin has perfect pitch, Zyuganov is tone deaf. A middle-level Soviet-era bureaucrat who has not grown with the job, he turns off all but the converted with his wooden speeches and distinct lack of charisma.

But Putin is the real enigma in the elections. His words hint at major changes; his deeds suggest something more subtle. Associates say he has distanced himself from Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire power broker who symbolizes the cynicism of the Yeltsin era. Yet an influential adviser to Putin's election campaign is a close Berezovsky associate, Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. Who is fooling whom? The elections will provide the answer. This time they will not be a cliff-hanger, but they will be climactic in their own more subdued way.