Not Your Standard Presidential Candidate

MTDemocratic Party leader and long-shot presidential candidate Andrei Bogdanov entering the organization's headquarters on Poltavskaya Ulitsa on Tuesday.
Perhaps nothing in Russia can whip up public hysteria like the notion of a Masonic conspiracy to take over the country. The word "democrat" has also become a widely pejorative term, and long hair on men is certainly a no-no for much of the Russian public.

Now meet Andrei Bogdanov, the presidential candidate with long, curly hair who heads up the country's largest Masonic lodge as well as the Democratic Party of Russia.

At 38, Bogdanov is Russia's youngest-ever presidential candidate, and he is running a long-shot campaign in the March 2 election that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin's preferred candidate, is all but guaranteed to win.

Bogdanov's party is also widely seen as a Kremlin-controlled project to draw votes away from actual opposition candidates and give voters a tame liberal option.

But Bogdanov says he is truly optimistic that he can eventually draw widespread support among young voters -- despite his Masonic background and cascading locks.

"We are working for the future," Bogdanov said in an interview this week at his party's headquarters in central Moscow. "A new generation of voters will emerge soon with a better knowledge of Freemasonry and with fewer prejudices about it -- and about the long hair."

Pointing to his computer, where he had his personal web page open on the popular social networking site Odnoklassniki.ru -- the Russian equivalent of Facebook -- Bogdanov said he receives around 500 messages daily there, as well as on his LiveJournal blog.

"Maybe only one mentions my being a Freemason and my hairstyle as negatives in my campaign," he said.

Along with Medvedev, Bogdanov is running against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- both stalwarts in Russian politics.

Bogdanov was registered as an independent after having collected 2 million signatures in support of his nomination that were verified by the Central Elections Commission. It was something liberal opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's former prime minister, did not pull off.

Election officials ruled that too many of the 2 million signatures Kasyanov submitted were forged or invalid, a decision Kasyanov claims was ordered by the Kremlin to keep him out of the race.

Bogdanov says Kasyanov merely made some rookie mistakes.

"Kasyanov was collecting signatures for the first time and trusted the task to amateurs and even crooks, while we gained colossal experience in collecting signatures for the 15 campaigns the party has run in the past 2 1/2 years," Bogdanov said.

Medvedev, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky were not required to submit signatures because they are running on the tickets of parties represented in the State Duma. Medvedev is running on the United Russia ticket.

Valentin Poluektov, Bogdanov's former party cohort and campaign strategist, said the candidate's supporters cut their teeth forging signatures in their successful campaign to put Sergei Mavrodi, the mastermind of Russia's most notorious pyramid scheme, MMM, into the Duma in 1995.

"It is impossible in real life" to collect 2 million signatures, Poluektov said.

Around 8,000 campaign workers were involved in collecting signatures for Bogdanov's presidential bid, costing his party around 811,000 rubles ($33,000), Bogdanov's spokeswoman, Yekaterina Vinokurova said.

The Democratic Party, whose roots go back to the early 1990s and which Bogdanov has headed up since 2005, claims more than 75,000 members nationwide.

The party was also the first to submit 200,000 signatures to run in the Dec. 2 Duma elections, drawing accusations from opposition candidates that it was stealing votes from liberal parties Yabloko and Union of Right Forces.

Bogdanov's party captured around 0.13 percent of the vote -- less than 90,000 votes in total.

Bogdanov, a veteran campaign strategist himself, concedes that he may be a pawn in the Kremlin's election game but says he wants to make the most of the chance he's been given.

"I take it in stride when they call me a 'spoiler,'" he said. "Yes, I understand that we suit authorities' interests, but why should we reject the opportunity?"

Bogdanov's media campaign kicked off Monday, and one of his television spots features him ice fishing and talking about the necessity of a flourishing middle class to ensure Russia's prosperity.

"We are not liberals," Bogdanov told The Moscow Times. "We are conservatives. The main principle of domestic policy, I believe, should be treating people and issues as if everything is happening in your family."

As for his foreign policy agenda, Bogdanov calls for closer cooperation with Europe and paving the way for entry into the European Union.

Political analysts said allowing Bogdanov to run was a carefully calculated Kremlin move to secure Medvedev's smooth election and head off criticism from the West.

The Kremlin "can use this to demonstrate to the West that democrats were allowed to participate in the election," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

Bogdanov is also being used to make sure that Medvedev has other candidates to run against should Zyuganov pull out of the race in protest -- a move that would give Zhirinovsky bargaining power with the Kremlin, said Makarkin and Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Institute of National Strategy, a think tank.

In any case, Bogdanov is playing by Putin's rules, Makarkin added.

"We don't want any revolutions, and we don't want to throw a wrench into the authorities' plans," Bogdanov said.

He denied ever having received instructions from the Kremlin, though he praised Putin for giving the country "eight years of stable development." He criticized the Kremlin, however, for not battling red tape and corruption among officials.

Asked about his Freemasonry, Bogdanov said he keeps it away from politics.

"For me, it's more about being a member of a spiritual brotherhood than anything else," he said. He declined to discuss the topic further, though last week he told reporters that he would remain a Freemason should he be elected.

Bogdanov was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Russia in June 2007. The lodge was founded by the French Grande Loge Nationale in June 1995.

Of all the young political activists in the democratic camp in the early 1990s, Bogdanov -- who had short hair back then -- was one of the most flamboyant and creative, said Valery Khomyakov, a former head of the Democratic Party's executive committee.

"He was my favorite student, very talented and ambitious," said Poluektov, who headed up the party's Moscow branch from 1991 to 1994. Bogdanov was his deputy.

In 1990, Bogdanov founded and led the party's youth wing, which was the first non-Communist political youth group in the country, Poluektov said.

The party suffered a deep internal schism in the mid-1990s and remained lethargic for a decade.

During this period, Bogdanov and his friends from the youth group worked as campaign strategists in regional and national elections.

"Campaigning itself is a dirty business, but Bogdanov really took things to the extreme," Poluektov said.

Bogdanov's "dirty" campaign innovations included tactics like using namesakes of rival candidates in one's own campaign to confuse voters, as well as organizing rallies by vagrants in support of a rival candidate, Poluektov said.

During the Democratic Party's campaign in the Krasnoyarsk regional legislature elections in April, Bogdanov and his cohorts made headlines by filing a complaint to local police accusing the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, of bribing voters. Police subsequently searched several SPS offices in the region, thus disrupting the party's campaign.

Bogdanov defended the move, comparing the Krasnoyarsk campaign to a boxing match.

"If I notice that another boxer had a rock in his glove, should I fight or tell the referee?" he said.

Bogdanov and his party also grabbed headlines in 2005 when Kasyanov made an unsuccessful bid to take over the party. Kasyanov's camp has accused the Kremlin of bribing party delegates to back Bogdanov. Media reports suggested, however, that Kasyanov was also trying to bribe candidates and was merely outbid by the Kremlin.

Kasyanov's representatives have denied the allegations, and senior Democratic Party official Vyacheslav Smirnov denied any Kremlin involvement in the affair.

Kasyanov's representatives knocked on the party's doors in April 2005, offered the party financial backing and proposed several joint projects, Smirnov said.

Kasyanov's people then tried on numerous occasions to take control over several of the party's regional branches, prompting the party to severe ties with Kasyanov at the party's December 2005 convention, at which Bogdanov was elected the party's leader, Smirnov said.

The party receives financial backing from private donors -- primarily small and medium-sized businesses, said Vinokurova, Bogdanov's spokeswoman.

Asked about his postelection plans, when his access to the national media will likely disappear, Bogdanov said he planned to stay on the political radar screen with help from the Internet.

"I will work on developing a popular democratic party that will tone up its muscles in regional elections in preparation for national elections in four years," he said.

Bogdanov and his party may garner more votes in future elections, but they will remain a useful tool for the Kremlin, Makarkin said.

Belkovsky, meanwhile, said Bogdanov would likely have no future as a politician after the election, though he may be in great demand as a campaign strategist.

"He is here now to demonstrate to future clients that he is trusted somewhat by the Kremlin," Belkovsky said.

There remains, perhaps, one ray of hope for Bogdanov in the election. Soviet leaders, beginning with Lenin, were alternately bald or had full heads of hair -- a trend that continued into post-Soviet Russia.

The good news for Bogdanov? Putin is balding. The bad news? Medvedev has a hirsute scalp.