“Kick this whore out the studio!” yells a bespectacled politician with a loose-fitting tie. He is Vladimir Zhirinovsky and this is a televised debate between Russia’s presidential candidates. Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (which is neither), is attacking his fellow candidate Ksenia Sobchak. A journalist working for the country’s sole remaining independent TV channel, she picks up a glass of water and splashes it over Zhirinovsky.
The only person missing from this joyless spectacle is Vladimir Putin. He is faithful to the principle initiated by Boris Yeltsin when Russia held its first presidential election in 1991: the top contender never takes part in TV debates. The one who wields real authority has no part in the circus.
So far, this cynical ploy is working well. Mr Putin is destined to begin his fourth presidential term with an inauguration ceremony in May. In February he crossed an important threshold, surpassing Leonid Brezhnev’s 18 years and a month as the master of Russia. That only leaves Joseph Stalin (who ruled for 29 years) to compete with.
The ballot this Sunday is not really an election. Rather, it marks Mr Putin’s self-reappointment as president. Yet the process itself is not devoid of political meaning. Although no one admits it, the Kremlin hand-picked the seven presidential candidates. That none of them ever raised the issue of Mr Putin’s non-participation in the debates is a defining characteristic of this charade. All seven are taking part in this show to give Putin what he badly needs: a semblance of legitimacy for what will probably be his last presidential term.
Each of them is supposed to cater to a specific segment of the population. Boris Titov, Putin’s own business ombudsman, is there to represent commerce. The communist Pavel Grudinin gathers the traditional left-wing and Stalinist vote, especially strong in provincial Russia.
Zhirinovsky is there for the uneducated imperialists, while Sergei Baburin, former vice-speaker of the Duma, represents educated Russian nationalists. The liberal and mild Grigory Yavlinsky stands for the weak, disoriented, middle-aged city intelligentsia – an endangered species in Putin’s Russia.
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