REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win his third presidential term in March, partly because he faces no strong opponents on the Russian ballot. Who is up against Putin and what are they promising? Here's a quick rundown of the Russian presidential race.
-- Vladimir Putin, 59, is seeking to reclaim the presidency following a four-year term as prime minister. The former president's campaign centers on strengthening the economy and defense and maintaining a foreign policy independent from the United States. He staunchly opposes U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe.
Putin has faced mass protests in Moscow and other major Russian cities over alleged election fraud. Yet he enjoys serious support among workers, farmers and government employees in the provinces.
He has promised to return some political rights and freedoms that were taken away earlier under his watch. He has also promised to invest billions in modernizing the Russian armed forces.
-- Gennady Zyuganov, 67, Communist Party leader, is a seasoned political fighter and perennial presidential candidate who nearly upset Boris Yeltsin in 1996.
Zyuganov wants to nationalize natural resources. His support is strongest among retirees and older working-class people in rural areas, who are more nostalgic about the Soviet era. He has also agreed, if elected, to opposition protesters' demand to free political prisoners.
Zyuganov is viewed by experts as Putin's probable opponent if the election goes to a runoff, but they strongly doubt that he could beat Putin.
-- Mikhail Prokhorov, 42, metals tycoon and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, is one of the richest men in Russia, with an estimated wealth of $18 billion.
Some experts believe that the Kremlin coerced Prokhorov to run to create a semblance of political pluralism and liven up the race. Others believe he is in the game for himself and can count on at least becoming prime minister if he fares well in the vote.
Compared with the other candidates, Prokhorov is conducting a very aggressive, Western-style campaign in which he aims for the younger generation, promising sweeping economic reforms and closer ties with the West. He has promised to free jailed tycoon and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky if elected.
He may benefit from some who want to cast a protest vote against Putin, but his playboy lifestyle doesn't play well with older conservatives.
-- Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 65, Liberal Democratic Party leader, is an outspoken rabble-rouser. Experts see Zhirinovsky as the Kremlin jester. Though he speaks up loudly against the government, the nationalist leader backs it on major foreign and domestic policy issues.
His party is largely seen as a one-man band -- and neither liberal nor democratic, despite its name. In one of his most notorious moves, Zhirinovsky offered political backing four years ago to a former KGB agent who was suspected of poisoning a Russian dissident, which helped the ex-agent get immunity from prosecution.
-- Sergei Mironov, 59, is a former Putin ally and a onetime leader of the Just Russian party, which splintered from Putin's party a few years ago. Political experts are divided over whether Mironov has really broken with his former friend and boss. He is seen as a long-shot candidate.
He ran against Putin eight years ago, though he was not exactly a fiery opponent: In that campaign, Mironov was widely quoted as saying, "We all want Vladimir Putin to be the next president."
How the Russian elections work:
If the winner of the first round doesn't get more than 50% of the vote, he faces the runner-up in a second round of voting two weeks later. The second round goes to whoever wins more of the vote.
What's at stake:
The winner will be Russia's president for the next six years. In a presidential republic such as the Russian Federation, the president enjoys ultimate power.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: Russian billionaire and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov speaks during a news conference in Moscow's Izmailovo Hotel on Monday. Credit: Sergey Ponomarev / Associated Press