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Daily Archives: February 25, 2008

Russia readies for one-horse presidential race

by Nick Coleman*

Russia holds a presidential election on March 2 but one week ahead the result has all but been announced in the form of a huge banner outside the Kremlin.
"Together We Will Be Victorious!" reads the banner depicting outgoing President Vladimir Putin with his favoured candidate Dmitry Medvedev against the background of Russia's tricolour flag.
Ahead of the polls in this country now rebounding as an energy, nuclear and space power, the lone Kremlin banner is about the closest Russia's 109 million voters have got to seeing a conventional campaign poster.
Right into the last week before polling the rest of Russia's streets and squares have remained devoid of campaign posters, while television channels and newspapers have paid minimal attention to Medvedev's rivals.
"Today I don't see any challenges to his victory," analyst Yevgeny Volk said of the 42-year-old Medvedev, who is currently first deputy prime minister and chairman of the energy giant Gazprom.
His opponents on the ballot paper are veteran Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov — who enjoys residual support mainly among the elderly — right wing rabble-rouser and showman Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the obscure Andrei Bogdanov, known partly for his long hair and membership of the Freemasons.
Medvedev meanwhile has got round-the-clock coverage jetting round the country visiting farmers, soldiers, war veterans and young families, in between being introduced to foreign leaders by Putin.
The competition by his rivals "looks very half-hearted," observed Volk, who heads the Moscow office of the US-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"None of them really believes he can win or come close."
The point, say analysts, is not to offer a choice but to ensure a continuation of the course set by Putin when he came to power eight years ago.
Putin's rock solid opinion poll ratings suggest that is what many Russians want.
Many credit him with overseeing strong growth and an end to the military and economic humiliations of the post-Soviet 1990s. Dissenters fume that the achievements have less to do with sound policy that with high prices for Russian energy exports.
The Kremlin has painted Medvedev in a somewhat softer light than Putin's hard man image, synonymous with his secret service past and the military assault he led on the renegade province of Chechnya when he came to power.
But despite his youthful features and liking for 1970s rockers Deep Purple and Pink Floyd, Western hopes that Medvedev will oversee an opening up of Russian political life so far remain only that — hopes.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have pulled out of monitoring the polls, complaining of obstruction by the Russian authorities.
And Medvedev, who increasingly dresses and even speaks like his mentor, has not shied from opposition to the West on touchstone issues such as Western backing for Kosovo independence and US plans for missile defence facilities in eastern Europe.
"I don't think it's bad that on occasion we have started to show our teeth," he said in an lengthy interview last week with the magazine Itogi, intended to familiarise the public with a man still seen as comparatively bland.
Indeed the only intrigue is how Putin's own plans to retain major influence will work.
The Russian leader, who is obliged by the constitution to stand down, has accepted an advance offer from Medvedev to take up the prime minister's post.
But while the two have vowed close co-operation, some observers question the viability of this "two tsars" scenario, described by Volk as "very delicate and sensitive."
While Putin has expounded on the broad formal powers of the prime minister, previously in practice a technocratic role, Medvedev voiced a very traditional view of his next job in last week's interview.
"Such a state can be governed only by a strong presidential authority," he said. "Were Russia to become a parliamentary republic it would cease to exist."


Hollywood on edge as Oscars loom

by Rob Woollard*

Final preparations were being made yesterday ahead of the 80th Academy Awards, where a crop of films notable for their grim, dark themes were expected to dominate the Oscars top honours.
After months of uncertainty during the Hollywood writers strike, the movie industry's biggest party of the year will get underway as planned at 5:00 pm on (0900 Macau time today) at the Kodak Theatre.
Streets around the venue were being cordoned off as authorities prepared to drape a security blanket over the neighbourhood that is normally packed with tourists.
Around 3,400 guests comprising hundreds of A-list celebrities and movie industry powerbrokers will descend on the red carpet on Sunday, although forecast rain could dampen the party atmosphere.
The awards themselves are expected to be carved up between several violent, bleak movies, with the eight-times nominated "No Country for Old Men" heading the field along with "There Will Be Blood."
"There Will Be Blood," an edgy movie about a tyrannical oil prospector, is joined in the best picture category by legal thriller "Michael Clayton," historical drama "Atonement" and comedy "Juno."
But after scoring a sweep of the movie industry's professional awards — seen as key Oscar indicators — Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" looks unstoppable as the best picture winner.
Bookmakers have made the film a 1/3 favourite while the Coens are backed at 1/4 to scoop the best director prize.
Pundits say the expected success of "No Country for Old Men" indicates the willingness of the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science's 5,829 voters to reward quality film-making regardless of the level of violence.
"The old days of 'The Sound of Music' and 'Oliver' winning best picture are gone, at least for the time being," said Tom O'Neil, an awards season pundit with the Los Angeles Times'
"It's going to be the second year in a row that a best picture winner has won where all guns have been blazing," O'Neil added, recalling Martin Scorsese's win in 2007 for gangster movie "The Departed."
Beyond the contests for best picture and best director clear front-runners have emerged in most of the acting categories.
Daniel Day-Lewis is regarded as a shoo-in to scoop the second best actor statuette of his career for playing an oil baron in "There Will Be Blood," ahead of fellow nominees that include George Clooney for "Michael Clayton" and Tommy Lee Jones for "In the Valley of Elah."
However, O'Neil cautioned that the widely popular Clooney may yet pull off a shock. "In the history of the Oscars there is usually one absolutely jaw-dropping upset," O'Neil said.
"'Michael Clayton' is a very popular film and the reason for that is Clooney. That could carry him."
The best actress award is expected to be a straight fight between British veteran Julie Christie, who plays a woman grappling with Alzheimer's in "Away from Her," and France's Marion Cotillard, nominated for her startling portrayal of tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose."
In the supporting categories, Javier Bardem is poised to become the first ever Spaniard to win an acting Oscar for his performance in "No Country for Old Men," where he plays a psychopathic hit-man whose speciality is executing victims with a slaughterhouse cattle-gun.
But the race for best supporting actress is less clear-cut. Australia's Cate Blanchett, who is also nominated in the best actress category, had been the early favourite following her gender-bending performance as music legend Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There."
A heavily pregnant Blanchett picked up an eve-of-Oscars boost on Saturday when she won the best supporting actress prize at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica.
"It's kind of cruel to make a pregnant lady waddle this far," Blanchett joked as she collected her prize.
The Spirit Awards, seen as a laid-back alternative to the Oscars aimed at honouring independent films, saw three top honours go to Academy Awards best picture nominee "Juno."