The Russian presidential elections take place on 14 March. None of the candidates are even remotely on the left. Vladimir Putin, the current president, will win. The other six candidates may gather 25% of the votes between them. Who are these people?
Ivan Rybkin is a president of the Liberal Russia party and backed by Boris Berezovsky, the multi-millionaire who fled to London to escape fraud and embezzlement charges. Rybkin disappeared for five days in early February. He re-emerged to claim that he had been drugged and kidnapped in a government-sanctioned "special operation".
Rybkin also fled to London, from where he runs his election campaign: "My absence from Russia will tell the Russian electorate and the governments of the west more than if I remained. This election is a game without rules and is over for me before having started."
Two other candidates are Sergei Glaziev, second-in-command of "Rodina" ("The Motherland") and Sergei Mironov, candidate of the Party for Life. Both are Putin supporters and were encouraged to stand by the Kremlin, in order to boost the electoral turnout - the election results will be invalid if less than 50% of the electorate participate.
Mironov is a close ally of Putin. As speaker in the Federation Council (the upper house in the Russian "parliamentary" system) he has helped transform the Council into a rubber stamp for Putin's decisions. Mironov has said he is standing "so that Vladimir Putin does not feel alone"!
Another candidate, Nikolai Kharitonov, is standing on behalf of the Russian Communist Party (CPRF). Kharitonov was chosen in preference to Nikolai Kondratenko (a notorious anti-semite) and Gennady Semigin (a wealthy businessman, popularly known as "the Kremlin's agent in the Communist Party") - not that the CPRF was opposed in principle to standing an anti-semite or a businessman as a "communist" candidate.
After its poor performance in last December's elections for the Duma (the lower house in the Russian "parliamentary" system) the CPRF had hesitated to stand a candidate. But the leadership calculated that a failure to stand a candidate would lead to the party's traditional electorate abandoning it - in favour of the right-wing nationalist Rodina.
Oleg Malychin is the candidate of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The LDPR was a creation of the Kremlin and, despite its rhetoric, has consistently backed the Kremlin line in the Duma. Malychin is one of Zhirinovsky's bodyguards and a complete unknown.
The final candidate is Irina Khakamada. She is a member of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) but not a candidate of the SPS. The SPS is boycotting the elections and has condemned her decision to stand. Nominally independent, she is backed by the "Open Russia" non-governmental organisation - a creation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently in prison awaiting trial on fraud charges.
SPS leader Boris Nemtsov has called for a boycott on the grounds that "the democratic parties must not use a fig leaf and cover up a bureaucratic police regime that is simply increasing in strength." Yabloko, another mainstream right-wing party, is also calling for a boycott of the elections:
"Free, just and truly fought out elections are not possible. It would serve no purpose to take part in elections during which you cannot say what you think nor address the electorate "
The pre-ordained victor in this electoral charade is thus Vladimir Putin. Like other candidates, Putin needed to gather two million signatures to be able to stand. Methods used to gather the signatures included employers allowing workers to clock off early if they signed up for Putin, and prisoners being given reductions in their sentences in exchange for a signature.
Putin's campaign is about Putin, not politics. The ongoing war in Chechnya (which Putin pledged to win when he first became president nearly four years ago) is a taboo subject. So too are poverty (in a country where over 20% of the population live below the official poverty line) and crime (in a country where corruption is rampant).
Coverage of the election campaign by the state-controlled media (and media run by Putin's big business friends) has focused largely on Putin. Putin has been shown attending military exercises in army and navy uniforms, meeting with Afghan war veterans, discussing with leading academics, and opening a highway in the Far East. When Putin donated two of his dog's puppies to a pensioner in Rostov and a five-year-old girl in Smolensk, this act of state was given prime time television news coverage.
Putin's influence over Russian television is just one example, but not necessarily the most important example, of how Putin has consolidated his power in the course of his term as president.
In last December's Duma elections the pro-Putin United Russia party swept the board, winning over two thirds of the seats. This gives United Russia the power to change the Russian constitution. Thanks largely to the role played by Mironov the Federation Council now rubber-stamps rather than scrutinises new legislation.
The anti-Putin oligarchs - those businessmen who accumulated vast fortunes under Yeltsin, but who failed to switch their support to Putin - are in disarray. Oil magnate Khodorkovsky is in jail awaiting trial. Berezovsky has has been granted political asylum in London. (Proof that fleeing prosecution rather than persecution entitles you to refugee status.)
Roman Abramovich is under investigation for alleged corruption in his administration of the Chukotka region, which he runs as his personal fiefdom.
Vladimir Potanin, the controlling shareholder of Norilsk Nickel, is on the verge of seeing his business empire broken up.
The plans of aluminium boss Oleg Deripaska to sell off some of his plants to the US firm Alcoa are likely to be blocked by Putin.
Putin's recent dismissal of the Russian Prime Minister and government was another step forward in his consolidation of power. Putin's actual target was the Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, but constitutional niceties required him to sack the entire government in order to get rid of the Prime Minister.
Kasyanov was a left-over from the Yeltsin era who had spoken out against the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky. He had rejected Putin's proposals to increase income tax and taxes on oil companies and was sceptical about Putin's plans to double the Russian GDP. He was linked to the "Family" (i.e. the factional opponents of Putin in the Russian oligarchy and state structures).
According to Igor Bunin of the Russian Centre for Political Technologies: "It's a symbolic move. Putin said: I want to make clear that all ties with Boris Yeltsin's family and its son, Kasyanov, have now been severed."
In the run-up to last year's Duma elections the arrest of Khodorkovsky proved to be a big vote-winner. Putin's calculation must be that sacking a Prime Minister tainted by support for Yeltsin can play the same role in the imminent presidential elections.
Putin's attacks on (certain) Russian oligarchs and his dismissal of Kasyanov do not mean that Putin is more left-wing, more democratically minded, or less corrupt than his predecessor (Yeltsin) and his supporters (the "Family").
Economic "liberalisation" has continued unabated under Putin, alongside the emergence of a "strong state": former members of the KGB security service have been appointed to all levels of the state structures and now form the nucleus of Putin's support.
Putin's watchword for his second term of office as president is competitiveness. As he put it, "We must be competitive in everything - as an individual, as a branch, as a people, and, finally, as a country. This must become our national idea."
Writing in the Moscow News, the Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky summed up how Putin's crackdown on his opponents, including Kasyanov, has paved the way for a new round of promoting the forces of the "free market" in his second term of office:
"Now the president's foes have fallen, the political opposition is all but non-existent, oligarch malcontents have been exiled or locked up, and the rest have been brought to heel. Business leaders now clearly understand that direct interference in politics will not be tolerated, something that sits well with liberal theories of political economy."
"The state, in line with the same theories, should remove all obstacles to the development of a free market, reduce the state's redistributive role to a minimum and hand over any desirable sector of the economy to the private sector. The president has assigned himself the distinguished role of night-watchman, i.e. head of the repressive apparatus - a role he is well suited to by his professional background.
"The road to this liberal idyll lies, however, through a new round of neo-liberal measures."
By Stan Crooke