January 15, 2012 4:23 pm

Putin campaign trail strewn with obstacles

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Vladimir Putin has kicked off his presidential campaign in earnest, with a new website, illustrated with familiar images of the Russian premier on the judo mat, the ski slopes and horseback, trumpeting his social and economic reforms as well as his athletic prowess.

Scrubbed of any mention of United Russia, the Kremlin’s ruling party which is under fire over last month’s disputed parliamentary elections, the site and the campaign itself are part of an effort to turn the conversation back to Mr Putin himself. Yet the discussion has hardly gone according to plan.

Within an hour of the campaign launch last Thursday, a section asking for public feedback was flooded with requests for Mr Putin’s resignation.

The negative comments, which a Kremlin spokesman attributed to hackers, were soon purged – supposedly for profanity. Yet many of the messages, preserved through cached versions of the sites and screen shots, paint a more nuanced picture.

“Retire,” pleaded Mikhail Meshkov. “I want to live in a normal country. Leave before it’s too late.” Arkady Vishnev wrote that ending the presidential campaign would be “the most helpful thing you could do for your country”. Andrei Antonenko echoed: “It’s clear that power is like a drug but [leaving] would be the right thing to do.”

The jabs – and their ability to surface on Mr Putin’s website in the first place – reflect the new challenges the Kremlin faces as it struggles to stick to the script in the weeks before the March 4 presidential vote.

So far its strategy has been to ignore the recent mass demonstrations which have seen tens of thousands take to the streets of Moscow demanding a rerun of December’s parliamentary elections and liberalisation of the political system.

On his website, which offers the first taste of his presidential platform, the prime minister promises job creation and modernisation of the economy but makes no mention of these big political issues. His most radical proposals are a crackdown on smoking in public places and on drinking.

Vyacheslav Lysakov, an adviser on Mr Putin’s election campaign, said the recent protests had yet to affect the prime minister’s strategy as the demonstrations only reflected the views of an urban, internet-savvy minority and not the wider Russian population.

“Unfortunately a larger part of the country, which works, treats patients, looks after children, works in the fields ... does not even know what the internet is or only knows about email,” he said.

“The active participants of these protests are people who live on the internet. To say that they represent a significant part of the country would be wrong.”

Indeed, a recent opinion poll suggests Mr Putin retains wide support. A survey by VTsOM, a sociological research agency, reported on Friday that he was now expected to win 48 per cent of the vote in the presidential election, up from 42 per cent in mid-December.

While the Kremlin has so far been reluctant to engage with the protesters, the next demonstration, planned for February 4, could be a turning point.

Coming a month after the last gathering, it will test whether the movement is petering out or gathering momentum. If the latter is the case, Mr Putin may be forced to offer more concessions as part of his political platform, said Aleksei Makarkin of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.

Should Mr Putin escape this scenario, he still faces the separate challenge of distancing himself from United Russia while taking advantage of the party’s technology and resources.

One way of doing this is increasing his reliance on the All-Russian People’s Front, a new political group created by Mr Putin last May when United Russia’s popularity first showed signs of waning.

Over the past few weeks United Russia has been pushed into the shadows, with the People’s Front chosen to formally manage his campaign and Vyacheslav Volodin, the creator of the People’s Front, promoted to first deputy chief of staff for the president in December. Yet the distinction between the groups has blurred, political analysts said.

Sergei Markov, a former United Russia lawmaker who heads the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, said that to win in the first round with a 50 per cent majority Mr Putin would have to distance himself from United Russia and the parliamentary election scandal and use “the organisation of United Russia but the image of the People’s Front”.

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