Despite recent military setbacks in Chechnya and a slide in the currency, Acting President Vladimir Putin continued to ride a political juggernaut today toward the Russian presidency as a top rival was diverted and opinion polls indicated he will be virtually unbeatable in the election in March.
On a visit to the university he attended in St. Petersburg before joining the KGB in 1975, Putin formally accepted nomination to the March 26 ballot made by a group of political and cultural leaders. The nomination was proposed Wednesday in Moscow.
But the election is looking more like it is taken from a page in the history of the Soviet one-party state than from a pluralistic democracy. Much of Russia's political elite is rapidly lining up behind Putin, who has at his disposal considerable resources, including a financial and media empire allied with the Kremlin.
In the Putin nomination meeting, held in an elite government-owned hotel, only official state-owned television was permitted to report on the event. Commercial NTV television, which had been critical of the Kremlin-based clique in recent months, was barred.
Potential competitors also face hurdles in the shortened election period triggered by Boris Yeltsin's resignation Dec. 31. One potential rival, Yevgeny Primakov, the former foreign minister, prime minister and KGB chief, today decided to run for speaker of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
Primakov did not comment publicly, but his plan--signaling that he will not challenge Putin--was disclosed in a closed meeting of faction leaders. Primakov had announced his intention to run for president in December, just before the parliamentary elections. The new Duma is to convene next week.
A new nationwide poll published today showed Putin's approval ratings have continued to rise since December. The polls, conducted by the Public Opinion Fund--the last taken five days ago--show 55 percent of those questioned said they would vote for Putin if the election were held the next Sunday, compared with 45 percent last month.
The poll showed Putin would win in a landslide against potential challengers. If paired against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Putin would win with 70 percent of the vote to Zyuganov's 17 percent; against Primakov, 71 to 15 percent; and against Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, 75 to 7 percent. Zyuganov and Yavlinsky have both said they will run.
Putin's popularity is largely the result of his prosecution of the military campaign against Chechen rebels, and could still sour if the Russian public reacts to setbacks such as the rebels' recent counterattacks on villages previously overrun by Russian troops.
Moreover, Putin seems to have stumbled with one of his first announcements on the economy. He endorsed a Central Bank proposal to impose new currency restrictions designed to keep valuable foreign exchange in Russia. The measure would require exporters to resell 100 percent of their hard-currency earnings to the Central Bank, up from the current requirement of 75 percent.
Many producers of Russia's natural resources already stash large amounts of their hard-currency earnings abroad, a phenomenon known as capital flight. Putin's announcement appeared to shake the Russian domestic currency market, already weak from seasonal factors; the ruble has fallen 7 percent since Christmas.
Anatoly Chubais, head of the Russian electricity monopoly, called the plan to seize the hard-currency earnings "shallow and ill thought-out," and said it is unlikely to be implemented. Rem Vyakhirev, head of the natural gas monopoly Gazprom, said it was an idea created by "technically illiterate people." However, both Chubais and Vyakhirev were among those nominating Putin on Wednesday. Vyakhirev's company has made a number of large campaign contributions.
Putin "made his first economic mistake" by threatening to impose the new restrictions, according to an analysis by Roland Nash of Renaissance Capital, a brokerage house here. "Exporters, knowing that they will be more restricted in exporting capital in six months' time, are busy accumulating dollar revenues abroad today," he said.