Victory now certain for man behind the war in Chechnya

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As Russians prepare to choose a new president on Sunday, the only issue still in doubt is whether Vladimir Putin, the acting president, will win outright in the first round of the election by securing half of the vote.

Mr Putin, who claims he is too busy to campaign, yesterday found his official duties took him to Kazan, east of Moscow, for a visit sure to win wall-to-wall coverage on the largely state-controlled television.

In protest at his near-monopoly of media coverage, demonstrators took a couple of television sets into the street in central Moscow last week and publicly smashed them.

The most pessimistic polls from Mr Putin's point of view yesterday showed him winning 48 per cent of the vote. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, trails with 28 per cent, Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko party 9 per cent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party 4 per cent.

Other polls are even more favourable to Mr Putin, who is competing against 10 rivals. His is a striking achievement for a man almost unknown when appointed prime minister last September. He owes his popularity to the Chechen war, of which he was the architect, and the contrast his vigorous figure makes with that of Boris Yeltsin, his stumbling and often incoherent predecessor.

His critics say Mr Putin is an unknown quantity, without any policies apart from the occupation of Chechnya. But the same could be said of all the candidates. The acting president's KGB past, which creates such suspicion in the West, reinforces for most Russian voters the hope that at last there will be a firm hand at the tiller in the Kremlin.

This hope is tinged with cynicism born of bitter experience. In one factory in south Russia this month workers panicked when they were given a 30 per cent pay rise. The last time this happened was before President Yeltsin was re-elected in 1996. The workers were not paid for the four months after that election.

The most popular Russian political joke these days tells of a fox who approaches a crow which has a piece of cheese in his beak and asks him: "Will you vote for Putin? Yes or no." When the crow opens his beak to say, "Yes" he drops his piece of cheese. The fox grabs it and makes a swift getaway. As the fox disappears with his lunch the crow says: "If I had said 'No' I'd still have lost my cheese."

Many voters, like the crow, privately fear they will be the losers regardless of how they vote. But leaders in cities and towns across Russia know which way the political wind is blowing.

In Kolomna, a town south of Moscow, Ariadna Peshenkova, sitting in Mr Putin's campaign headquarters, said there was no need for his supporters to go from house to house looking for votes. "Heads of local enterprises get information from us then they meet their workers and explain the policy of Putin to them," she said.

Mr Putin's highly successful campaign strategy has been to exude self-assurance, competence and strong will. He is pictured practising martial arts, and earlier in the week flew to Chechnya in the back seat of a fighter-bomber. The fact that his policies are not known enables him to be all things to all men.

He has given only one serious hostage to fortune, the war in Chechnya. If that was intended as a symbol of resurgent Russian power it also shows the limits of its strength. Yesterday the army, which last month announced it had won the war, was still trying to recapture the village of Komsomolskoye, which guerrillas retook three weeks ago.

Mr Putin knows that his public image depends on the war being presented in the Russian media as a success. He is said to have told one media magnate: "Say what you like about me personally, but if you criticise the war I'll tear you apart."

* An appeal for international action to halt Russian atrocities in Chechnya has been signed by 200 Western intellectuals of the left and right, ranging from Noam Chomsky to John le Carré.