With Russian parliamentary elections just around the corner, speculation about President Vladimir Putinâ€™s future has overshadowed a campaign marked by voter apathy.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which Russians associate with the countryâ€™s economic resurgence and return as a major international power player, is likely to make another dominant showing in the vote for the Duma.
In a campaign devoid of much opposition — partly due to state controls — political parties are vying for support by touting their association with the popular president. As Putinâ€™s favorite, United Russia has been pushing that message hard.
Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, a senior United Russia official, credited Putin for setting the national agenda and suggested that only United Russia could adhere to the strategic course established by the president.
â€œThe party that will win the elections is the one able to set and dominate the agenda, and United Russia along with Putin succeeded in doing that,â€ said Dmitry Badovsky, deputy director of the Moscow-based Research Institute of Social Systems. â€œNot a single party, with the partial exception of the Communists, has been able to formulate an appropriate response.â€
Putin is barred by the Russian constitution from remaining in office past presidential elections scheduled for next March, but few Russians believe Putin will depart the political stage.
In October, Putin agreed to head United Russiaâ€™s party list for the Dec. 2 Duma vote, though he is not technically a party member.
Considering the partyâ€™s accomplishments in recent years, Putin said he â€œagreed to lead United Russia despite all the misgivings and to urge the people to vote for the party so that it can form a majority in the state Duma.â€
The goal, according to Putin, is to achieve â€œunity between executive and legislative branches of power.â€
Putin has said heâ€™d consider becoming prime minister, provided United Russia garners enough votes, but the premiership in Russia is relatively weak. Many analysts suggest Putin instead will take a constitutionally mandated recess from being president, then return in a future election.
Earlier this month the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe canceled plans to monitor the Duma elections, saying Russiaâ€™s limitations on their monitors would have obstructed their mission. Among other limitations, Russia cut the number of visas issued to OSCE monitors to 70 from 400.
Putin blamed the OSCE for harboring a political agenda.
In the meantime, Putinâ€™s persona has dominated the Duma elections.
United Russia has embraced a vague mantra of â€œPutinâ€™s Planâ€ in place of any clear-cut political platform, and from the heart of Moscow to outlying regional towns, giant posters announce â€œPutinâ€™s Plan is a Victory for Russia,â€ along with a small United Russia logo in the corner.
Representatives of United Russia have refused to take part in pre-electoral TV debates, saying the party has other means to â€œdeliver information to the people.â€
Jews in Russia have reacted to the election not unlike their gentile counterparts: with general indifference.
â€œIâ€™m not sure that anyone is interested in the Duma elections, either in the Jewish community or in the Russian population,â€ said Russian Jewish Congress executive vice president Evgeniy Satanovsky.
â€œYou basically have only two or three parties running which have any hope of getting seats within the Duma, and all of these parties are within, letâ€™s just call it the â€˜national consensus,â€™ and they refrain from political anti-Semitism,â€ said Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt. â€œSo therefore, political anti-Semitism has been much less present during these elections than previous elections.â€
The opposition has focused mostly on countering Putinâ€™s influence — with little apparent success.
Earlier this month, Russiaâ€™s Supreme Court rejected a case brought by one of several liberal parties allowed to run in the election, the Union of Right Forces, known as SPS, which argued that Putin should be barred from the parliamentary campaign because of the unfair advantage the head of state has to promote one party over another.
Putin has tried to walk a fine line between outright campaigning for United Russia and performing his presidential duties. He also has taken some pains not to identify too closely with United Russia. In televised remarks recently during a meeting with workers in Krasnoyarsk, Putin described the party as â€œlacking in steady ideological principlesâ€ and home to some opportunists.
His harsh assessment notwithstanding, Putin has left no doubt about his ultimate party of choice, leaving opposition groups demoralized and scrambling for attention.
Furthermore, a 2-year-old rule that raised the threshold needed to secure seats in the Duma to 7 percent from 5 percent of votes has made it nearly impossible for small parties to win any seats.
Polls show United Russia picking up about 60 percent of the vote, with the Communists placing a distant second with 9 percent.
Those are the only parties seemingly assured of passing the minimal 7 percent threshold.
The stridently nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has made anti-Semitic remarks about Jews ruining Russia, is hovering around 7 percent. The other 11 parties competing in the campaign register support in the low single digits.
As a result of their increasing marginalization, several small parties have ramped up their rhetoric in recent weeks and taken a more radical approach.
Two opposition parties marched over the weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with supporters clashing with police and party leaders detained or arrested.
The Communist Party also has challenged authorities, in one case demanding that state-owned TV retract unfair statements made in a recent program.
Pro-Putin voters who donâ€™t find United Russiaâ€™s endorsement of Putin enthusiastic enough can join the newly formed For Putin public movement, which assembled more than 700 delegates recently in the city of Tver to urge the president to stay past the end of his term.
Headed by lawyer and TV personality Pavel Astakhov, the group has tried to formulate an extra constitutional role for Putin as the â€œnational leaderâ€ — something between president for life and czar.
One group, Women of Vladivostok, sent a petition to Putinâ€™s wife, Lyudmila, exhorting her to run in the presidential elections next March.