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Two Putins to to take part in Russia`s election


Vladimir Putin would like to take his election campaign out into the countryside but there is a problem: his party cannot afford the petrol.

"If we could, we would go to every village," he said, sitting on a park bench in the Russian city of Stavropol during his lunch break. "We do not have the money."

There are two Vladimir Putins running in the December 2 election to Russia`s parliament. One is the president. The other is a 45-year-old lawyer with Stavropol`s municipal water company running for Yabloko, a small opposition party.

On paper, both started the campaign with an equal chance of being elected. In reality, the gulf between the two men -- just like the gulf throughout the country between Putin`s United Russia party and its opponents -- is enormous.

Opinion polls point to a huge win for United Russia on election night while its rivals trail far behind.

The president`s supporters say there is a simple explanation: voters support him and his party because they like what he has done. Incomes are rising, there is political stability and the country walks tall again on the world stage.

His opponents say the real difference is what in Russia is known as "administrative resource": the Kremlin using its money, its control over national television and its bureaucratic clout to give United Russia an unfair advantage.

"United Russia is, in effect, the ruling party," said Konstantin Khodunkov, Stavropol region secretary of the Communist Party, Russia`s strongest opposition force.

"All the local bosses are members of United Russia," he said in his office decorated with portraits of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. "For them, the other parties do not exist.

Igor Dyomin, chief spokesman for United Russia`s faction in the national parliament, said many senior officials were party members, but that did not translate into votes for the party.

"Instead of having a discussion about the specific issues, they (opposition parties) start inventing all sorts of myths. The most widespread of these is that we are pushing our interests by using administrative resources," he said.

"PROPAGANDA"

United Russia does not have everything its own way in Stavropol, a city of about 350,000 people a two-hour flight south of Moscow.

The mayor`s office is controlled by Fair Russia, another pro-Kremlin party but one that is much smaller and has tetchy relations with its bigger stablemate.

United Russia though has more powerful friends. Its local election slate is headed by the popular and photogenic Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu and Alexander Karelin, a wrestling champion and national sporting hero.

The tallest building in the town centre is draped with a huge United Russia campaign banner that takes up the top eight of its 20 storeys.

The building is owned by Kavkaztransgaz, a local unit of state-controlled gas giant Gazprom. The general director of the local unit is also acting United Russia boss in Stavropol region.

The opposition says officials make students attend United Russia rallies, and that school headteachers lobby staff to vote for the party. Local United Russia officials and the governor`s office said no one was available to comment on those claims.

But United Russia`s opponents say by far its biggest unfair advantage is the president. They say every television appearance Putin makes in his capacity as head of state is an advertisement for his party.

"This is propaganda that gets into people`s consciousness," said the other Vladimir Putin. His own media appearances have been more modest: four election debates on local radio.

Opinion polls see his party, Yabloko, as likely to get no more than two per cent of the vote -- not enough to secure it seats in the State Duma.

"It is clear our chances are absolutely not equal," he said as he prepared to walk back to his office at the end of his lunch hour. But he added: "We have hope."

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