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When Russians go to the polls Sunday, they will have several choices for president. But none is a serious threat to Vladimir Putin, who has been the most powerful figure in Russia for the past 12 years.

Boris Makarenko, a longtime observer of Russian politics, says the candidates arrayed against Putin are all more or less part of what Kremlin leaders call "the systemic opposition."

In other words, he says, they are "the tolerable opposition ... which can never even hope of replacing them in the Kremlin."

Makarenko is chairman of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank in Moscow. He notes that two of the candidates opposing Putin are from parties that the Kremlin has long tolerated, the Communists and the Liberal Democrats.

Perennial Also-Rans

The Communist candidate is 67-year-old Gennady Zyuganov, a veteran of three failed presidential bids.

Zyuganov has offered few new ideas, but that's just fine with the backbone of his party, who Makarenko describes as "mostly elderly people who still believe that they live in the Soviet Union, and whatever is different from the Soviet practice as a way of life is worse."

Recent polling shows Zyuganov running a distant second to Putin with about 15 percent of the vote.

Then there's the Liberal Democratic Party, a nationalist party that critics joke is neither liberal nor democratic.

Its candidate, 65-year-old Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has variously been called a clown and a demagogue, but Makarenko says he is "a very talented public politician who can always find his way to accuse the government of all the deadly sins and never get on bad terms with them."

Zhirinovsky is also a three-time presidential loser and is expected to score in the single digits Sunday.

A Billionaire Candidate

Makarenko says political newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov has a shot at third place.

A billionaire oligarch who made his money from mines that were privatized after the fall of the Soviet Union, Prokhorov doesn't have a party at all, though he says he's trying to form one that will take its political direction from the grass roots.

The 46-year-old's assets include the New Jersey Nets basketball team, and money seems to be no object in his self-financed campaign.

At American-style campaign events around the country, he tells supporters that he is pro-business but wants a country that values the citizen and not just the state.

Makarenko calls Prokhorov "a general waiting for his army," a political party that could take shape if he can make a decent showing in this election.

"Significantly, it's Mr. Prokhorov who commands the support of protesters in the streets and squares of Moscow and other large Russian cities who protest against the electoral fraud," Makarenko says, referring to the claims that December parliamentary polls were rigged.

But many voters fear Prokhorov is "a Kremlin project" — secretly approved and supported by the government. The idea is that Prokhorov would give the campaign a veneer of democratic diversity.

At the back of the pack is Sergei Mironov, a former leader of the upper house of Russia's Parliament. He ran against Putin in 2004, an effort so halfhearted that he was quoted as saying "we all want Vladimir Putin to win."

Putin, Russia's 'Protector'

And finally, of course, there's Putin himself, who has been running a vigorous campaign in the face of mounting opposition against him. Putin spoke with martial fervor at a rally last week, warning of foreign threats.

That has been the tenor of much of his campaigning: that Russia is at risk and needs a strong leader to protect it.

Some people hope that by voting for Prokhorov, the billionaire newcomer, or Zyuganov, the veteran Communist, they can prevent Putin from getting the 50 percent of the vote needed to win on the first round.

Even if that unlikely event were to occur, many of the people who took part in the mass protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg wouldn't accept the results.

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