MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister's office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column "Kremlinology 2012.") Once Putin decided who was running -- himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev -- then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country's only real voter.
In the year since, so much has happened -- the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since -- and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man -- the same man -- can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.
Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests -- not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies -- it's become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.
But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin's number shot up. "People are rooting for the winner," Volkov told me.
On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he's the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin's two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors -- it's a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead -- has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin's most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the "we-love-Putin" camp and the "got-any-better-ideas?" camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.