Russia gets tired of the Putin show
Kremlin ready for poll with campaign of threats, censorship -- and legions of scantily-clad girls
Tina Kandelaki approvingly calls Vladimir Putin "Russia's James Bond", and is one of the Kremlin's most glamorous and articulate supporters.
But even the high-profile television presenter is powerless before the dead hand of the Kremlin censor at election time.
Until recently, she co-hosted a political talk show called Unreal Politics. But it turned out to be a little too real for the Kremlin's liking. In the run-up to today's parliamentary election, NTV, a state-controlled channel, refused to broadcast two episodes of the programme, causing an unusually public row about the limits of free speech that ended in the show's closure.
"There was an internal conflict, we made the programmes and they refused to buy them," Ms Kandelaki said, preferring not to use the word censorship, perhaps because she is still in the TV business.
"Every channel has its own policy. They told us they didn't like the guests. They got nervous before the election."
One of the offending programmes covered a censorship row between President Dmitry Medvedev and journalism students, while the other took a swipe at a senior government official caught eating in one of Moscow's most expensive restaurants.
Today's election in the world's biggest energy exporter is a test for the Kremlin, and it does not want anything to spoil it.
Russia's 110 million voters will elect a new Duma for the next five years in what is being seen as a vote of confidence in Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, who has announced he will be returning to the presidency next year.
Mr Putin's United Russia party controls all the levers of power and is expected to win a comfortable majority, although with fewer votes than the last election in 2007.
A slew of corruption scandals in which United Russia has been labelled "the party of thieves and swindlers" has seen to that, as has its failure to lift millions of Russians out of grinding poverty.
"They've been unashamedly and impudently preparing to commit fraud on a national scale," said Boris Nemtsov, one of the few genuine opposition leaders, who was deputy prime minister during the Boris Yeltsin presidency in the 1990s and was seen by many as a possible successor until Mr Putin won power in 2000.
"Some 2.6 million voting slips have been printed which are being given out to nashists (Kremlin youth activists), government officials and others who depend on the regime for their bread, in order to organise illegal carousels and multiple voting.
"People are being blackmailed, deceived and public sector workers are being intimidated."
Mr Nemtsov, who co-founded the umbrella opposition movement, Solidarity, three years ago this month, has first-hand experience of the pressure the Kremlin can apply to damp down dissent: he was sentenced to 15 days in prison last December, alongside other opposition leaders, for his part in a rally against restrictions on public protests.
Up to 30,000 Kremlin youth activists are expected to flood Moscow today, ostensibly to keep order, and to bolster the impression that the ruling United Russia party still enjoys popular support.
All methods appear to be legitimate. One journalist posing as a volunteer phoned Mr Medvedev's fan club, the skimpily-dressed Medvedev Girls, and said he was offered about €500 to round up 20 pro-Kremlin activists to trudge the capital's snow-covered streets for a few days.
Mr Putin's own female fan club, the Army of Putin, has been busy making videos lauding their idol, while officials have been caught bribing voters with bags of food and vodka shots.
The stick has been employed as well as the carrot. Other officials were caught threatening to cut state handouts unless their constituents voted for United Russia.
Analysts believe the Kremlin is digesting an uncomfortable truth: for all its dominance and control, there are serious rumblings of discontent and signs that traditionally apathetic voters are weary of the Putin show.