Hvordan finne Putins etterfølger? Presidentvalget i 2008 omtales ofte som «2008-problemet». Det finnes ingen selvstendige kandidater. De som nevnes tilhører kretsen rundt Putin, og den han utpeker blir valgt. To sjanseløse kandidater ble bakvasket og truet fra første stund.

Slik er Putins Russland. Regimet våger ikke ta sjansen på noe som ligner en fair valgkamp, og nettopp deri består den største trusselen mot Russlands demokrati, skriver sjef for New York Times Moskva-kontor: Steven Lee Myers.

Borgermesteren i Arkhangelsk, Aleksandr Donskoj, våget å stille som kandidat. Øyeblikkelig kastet pressen og rettssystemet seg over ham, og rykter om at han var homofil dukket opp. Det lyder nesten som en dårlig gangsterfilm.

Kremlin Inc. has become the name for the hybrid system Putin created: capitalism with an authoritarian face. The search for his replacement has started to look less like a political campaign and more like a boardroom struggle to select a new C.E.O. As at most corporations, the process is out of the public eye, the result presented to shareholders as a fait accompli. And like most executives, Putin is susceptible to choosing someone most like himself. «I don’t think it’s going to be a radical change,» Ivanov said in December.

Announcing one’s own candidacy is, in fact, tantamount to declaring one’s open opposition to the Kremlin, to the smooth transition of power, to Putin himself. Even the parliamentary opposition is wary of doing that. So far in this quasi-election season only two people have done it: a former prime minister, Mikhail M. Kasyanov, and, improbably, Aleksandr V. Donskoi, the youthful mayor of Arkhangelsk, a small port city on the White Sea.

Both promptly came under the scrutiny of prosecutors, even as the mass media piled on in the way they never do with today’s authorities, certainly not the likes of Putin, Ivanov or Medvedev. Kasyanov was accused of arranging the shady privatization of a luxury summer house on the Moscow River, Donskoi of falsifying a university diploma when he first ran for mayor two years ago.

On the day in November when I first met Donskoi in Moscow, intrigued by the audacity of his decision to run for president of all Russia, investigators raided his office up in Arkhangelsk. As we spoke, his wife, Marina, and an aide answered insistent phone calls from home and relayed progress reports. «I realize all the responsibilities,» Donskoi, a supermarket tycoon, told me. «I understand there could be difficulties, including physical threats. It’s already taking place.»

A month later he was back visiting Moscow and called a sparsely attended news conference to denounce an intensifying campaign against him. He denied having falsified his diploma and went on to explain, among other things, his interest in «gypsy hypnosis.» Marina Donskaya interrupted him, having lost patience with the pressure. «He’s not gay!» she shouted, referring to slurs that had been appearing in the Arkhangelsk press. «He impregnated me.»

By February, prosecutors had opened three cases against him. Donskoi, only 36 years old, unknown outside of Arkhangelsk and perhaps better off for it, would stand little chance in a real campaign to be the leader of a country as sprawling, complex and deeply troubled as Russia. That’s not the point. The point is that Putin’s Russia does not dare to hold an open competition for the highest office in the land — one where even a long shot like Donskoi could at least make a case for himself. That, more than anything else Putin has done, is the biggest threat to democracy.