Putin re-elected in landslide victory

Popular president takes 69 percent of the vote, but plans for Russia unclear

March 15, 2004|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Russians re-elected Vladimir V. Putin by a landslide margin yesterday, putting their faith firmly behind a president with a czar-like grip on power and an uncertain agenda for rescuing much of his country from the mire of poverty.

Exit polls had Putin garnering more than 69 percent of the vote, a clear sign of the depth of the former KGB agent's popularity. His closest challenger, the Communist Party's Nikolai Kharitonov, had 14 percent of the vote.

With another four-year term for Putin ensured before the polls opened, the only question heading into yesterday's contest was whether the minimum 50 percent voter turnout mark would be reached to make the election valid.

But an aggressive campaign by local and regional officials to lure, and in many cases coerce, Russians into performing their civic duty helped produce a turnout of 61 percent. Warm, sunny weather helped, but so did tactics such as bribing voters in Yakutsk with utility-bill discounts and threatening Volga region college students with eviction from their dorms if they didn't vote.

Putin's margin of victory served as a testament to the success he has had in nurturing with the 145 million Russians an image as an iron-willed, sensible leader - the antithesis of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Russians equated Yeltsin with weak leadership and blamed him for the country's economic free fall during the 1990s. He was at the helm when a handful of oligarchs took control of much of Russia's oil and ore wealth through rigged private deals. And he was president during Russia's financial crisis in 1998, which wiped out the savings of legions of working-class Russians.

Yeltsin's prime minister in 1999, Putin rose to power by promising Russians the restoration of order and stability through a "dictatorship of law." He took Yeltsin's offer to become acting president when Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, and that spring won election to a four-year term.

"I like his strength and rigidity," said Irina Grishina, a 68-year-old microbiologist, after voting for Putin. "He understands the position that pensioners and workers paid through the state budget are in - that our salaries are miserable. He hasn't done anything about it yet, but I hope he will."

Under Putin, Russia's economy began recovering. The economy grew by 7.3 percent last year, though that was largely because of a rise in oil prices.

As much as a third of the country lives below the poverty line, defined in Russia as $93 in monthly income. Putin also has yet to diversify Russia's economy to lessen its dangerous dependence on oil prices.

At a late-night news conference, a relaxed Putin acknowledged more must be done to improve living standards for Russians: "What has been done recently is not well-being. It isn't improving well-being. It's rather the dawn of well-being."

Aware his election was certain, Putin had begun laying a foundation for a slew of second-term economic and social reforms in recent weeks.

He replaced his prime minister and revamped the government, consolidating 30 ministries into 17. He retained two figures seen by Russia's investment community as key to economic reforms, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref.

Included in the new team's agenda will be Putin's goals of reducing the economy's dependence on oil and metal exports, shifting a larger share of the tax burden onto oil companies, and reforming banking, utilities, the courts and the pension system.

But he has yet to lay out his strategy for combating poverty. He wants to slash bureaucracy, but he faces the tricky task of asking bureaucrats to pare back nests of corruption and waste that they rely on to line their pockets. And though he has promised to double Russia's gross domestic product in 10 years, he hasn't explained how he will do it.

The certainty of Putin's victory focused attention on the race for second place. Kharitonov's 14 percent was somewhat unexpected, given the drubbing the Communist Party received in parliamentary elections in December.

The lone liberal in the race, Irina Khakamada, was hoping that a strong showing could give her momentum as she prepares to form a liberal opposition party after the election. But early returns had her with about 4 percent. Nationalist Sergei Glazyev didn't fare any better, also getting about 4 percent.

While television coverage of Putin's challengers has been scant, Russia's two major state channels broadcast Putin's 29-minute campaign kickoff speech last month and then replayed it several times that day.

Appearing from Washington on Fox News Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Russia must "understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognize, you've got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has. You've got to make sure people are not ... kept from participating in the open, full democratic process."

Powell's remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Dmitry Kozak, Putin's campaign chief and Russia's new government chief of staff. "Russian voters have already taken part in democratic elections and do not need any advice, especially from representatives of a country whose electoral procedures have explicit flaws," Kozak told the Russian news agency Interfax.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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