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Russian President Vladimir Putin's 14 March election victory was a model of an efficiently controlled, stage-managed campaign. There were few surprises generally, and none for the triumphant incumbent. The president's domination of virtually all actors in the political process -- the Duma, the Central Election Commission (TsIK), the media, local administrations, etc. -- produced a race that could be charitably described as "civilized," although opposition politicians would no doubt use another term. In many ways, it was the Kremlin's total control of the media that brought the whole show off so smoothly.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 8 March issued a report that concluded baldly that state-controlled national television -- overwhelmingly the public's main source of national news -- devoted far more airtime to Putin than to any other candidate. "On the state-funded TV channels [Putin] has received coverage far beyond that which was reasonably proportionate to his role as head of state," the OSCE wrote. According to the organization's monitoring, for instance, ORT gave Putin two hours and 38 minutes of "overwhelmingly positive" coverage during the first two weeks of the official campaign period. "All other candidates combined received a total of only 22 minutes," the report stated. "The other two state-funded TV channels adopted a similar approach."

The report noted in passing that, as in past election campaigns, the underfunded and vulnerable regional media "have given very little news coverage to the candidates' campaign activities." One bright exception to this general observation emerged on 9 March, when reported that the independent Afontovo television channel in Krasnoyarsk -- long one of the best regional media companies in Russia -- had broadcast footage of local administration officials arranging for local teachers to vote early in the presidential election. Although it is unlikely this scandal will amount to anything, it was a strikingly bold piece of reporting. During the 1996 and 2000 presidential races, media observers noted that most regional media outlets, out of fear of reprisals, published their reports of campaign violations only after the voting, if at all.

Control of the media greatly facilitated Putin's main campaign tactics, such as refusing to campaign or to participate in televised campaign debates. "The deficit in the campaign environment created by the other candidates' lack of opportunity to address questions and comments to the incumbent president on his performance in office is compounded by the general absence of a critical mass media posing such questions in its reporting," the OSCE wrote.

State-media control also assisted Putin when he decided on 24 February to dismiss the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. For the two weeks leading up to the 14 March ballot, much media attention was diverted from the campaign. Moreover, the Kremlin's grip on the media and the Duma ensured that the government shakeup was portrayed as calm, reasoned leadership rather than as a crisis, as the frequent cabinet dismissals of former President Boris Yeltsin were routinely depicted.

Media control has also allowed the Kremlin to block out any news that would reflect badly on Putin. In a 25 February story headlined "Chechnya Wound Kept Under Wraps For Putin's Big Day," dpa reported that government control of foreign and domestic correspondents working in the conflict zone has been stepped up. Those accredited to work there "are shepherded on tours that are supposed to show deep stabilization in the region. They are told to focus on "Chechnya's social and economic rejuvenation under Moscow's supervision."

Another monitoring report was issued by the Russian Union of Journalists on 2 March and largely confirmed the OSCE findings. The union found that media outlets -- both print and broadcast -- devoted from 57 to 100 percent of their campaign coverage to Putin. Moreover, it did not find any substantial difference between state-controlled and private media. Overall, the union's study -- which was funded by the European Commission -- found that national television devoted 63 percent of its coverage in the first week of the campaign to Putin, with the remaining 37 percent split fairly evenly among the other candidates, except for former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin. According to this report, Rybkin received no coverage at all prior to his strange misadventure in Kyiv.

In national newspapers, the Union of Journalists reported, Putin got 70 percent of the coverage. The daily "Trud," which was purchased by Promsvyazbank in August, devoted 95 percent of its coverage to Putin. When the bank, which also owns a controlling interest in "Argumenty i fakty," bought the paper, analysts predicted that its long-standing leftist orientation would shift toward the Kremlin, and, indeed, "Trud" has ironically devoted only 1 percent of its election coverage to Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov. The popular tabloid-like daily "Komsomolskaya pravda," which is owned by oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group, gave Putin 67 percent of its attention, putting it on a par with the government mouthpiece "Rossiiskaya gazeta."

State-controlled regional media such as "Nizhegorodskaya pravda" devoted 100 percent of their coverage to Putin. It is probably not coincidental that candidates Irina Khakamada and Sergei Glazev both reported that their efforts to campaign in Nizhnii Novgorod met open resistance from local authorities.

During the week before the vote, Glazev laid out his positions in a half-hour, one-on-one interview with the BBC's "HARDtalk" program. None of the presidential candidates had a similar opportunity to address voters on any of the Russian television channels.

Clearly, the path to Putin's seemingly inevitable re-election was considerably greased by a controlled and subservient media sector. Interestingly, however, it does not seem likely that the decidedly undemocratic nature of the election will cast any doubt on the legitimacy of Putin's re-election. On the contrary, the political elite and the public as well will likely see the process as the confirmation of a system that seems to be working. And this will make it that much easier for Putin to anoint his own successor in 2008.

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PREDICTS WORSENING RELATIONS TO FOLLOW PUTIN RE-ELECTION. United Civic Party Deputy Chairman Yaraslau Ramanchuk told Belapan on 15 March that he expects Belarusian-Russian relations to deteriorate following the re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin because Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "has irrevocably spoiled relations with Moscow." Mikalay Statkevich, head of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly), said Russia will aspire to the domination of the Belarusian economy and the political incorporation of Belarus. Syarhey Kalyakin, chairman of the Belarusian Party of Communists, told the agency that Lukashenka should now not expect "gratuitous assistance from Russia anymore." Syarhey Skrabets, leader of the defiant Respublika group in the Lukashenka-controlled Chamber of Representatives, also opined that the "distance" between the two countries will continue to increase during Putin's second term, noting that the recent Belarus-Russia dispute over gas deliveries (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 2 March 2004) provides clear evidence of this trend. "But this might be a blessing in disguise, because Belarus will now have to depend on its own resources, not Russian subsidies," Skrabets added. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT ORDERS HALT TO AUDITS IN MEDIA SECTOR DURING CAMPAIGN. President Leonid Kuchma has instructed the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, the State Tax Administration, and the Emergency Situations Ministry to impose a moratorium on audits and financial inspections among media enterprises during the upcoming presidential-election campaign in Ukraine, UNIAN reported on 16 March. Kuchma reportedly took the step following a request by the Ukrainian Association of Network Broadcasting. Earlier this month, the Verkhovna Rada voted down a resolution sponsored by opposition deputies that sought to call on the cabinet to ensure the unobstructed functioning of the media during the 2004 election campaign, including the introduction of a moratorium on media checks by authorities. JM

UKRAINIAN COMMUNISTS, SOCIALISTS WANT TROOPS OUT OF IRAQ. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko called on the Verkhovna Rada on 16 March to pass a bill on the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Iraq, UNIAN reported. Referring to last week's terrorist attacks in Madrid, Symonenko argued that such a bill is necessary to end the "state of war" that Ukraine is in and to prevent any possible terrorist retaliation against Ukraine. A similar appeal to the Verkhovna Rada was made by Socialist Party lawmaker Yuriy Lutsenko. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who spoke in parliament the same day, said he is "displeased" with the presence of Ukrainian soldiers in Iraq but evaded an unambiguous declaration over whether he would support their pullout from that country. Ukraine sent some 1,600 troops to the Polish-led international division in Iraq. JM

FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER GOES ON TRIAL IN U.S. FOR SUSPECTED MONEY LAUNDERING. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko (1996-97) went on trial in a San Francisco court on 15 March on charges that he laundered upwards of $114 million of illicit funds through U.S. banks, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. Lazarenko, who was arrested in the United States in February 1999, faces 53 counts of alleged wrongdoing in a U.S. federal indictment. Following his detention in the United States, Lazarenko was convicted in absentia for money laundering in Switzerland and charged with murder in Ukraine. Lazarenko's attorneys contend their client got rich in the 1990s thanks to his intelligence and knowledge while observing the legal rules of the game. Lazarenko's path to wealth included selling commodities obtained at fixed state prices at a profit, taking low-interest loans in a period of high inflation, and acquiring companies through cheap privatization vouchers. JM