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Unpopular Vladimir Putin still headed for election win in Russia

Excerpt

The following ran in the Feb. 29, 2012, edition of the Toronto Star. Law Professor Jeffrey Kahn provided expertise for this story.

March 9, 2012

By Olivia Ward

He swaggered into the political room like a Russian James Bond, the macho man young women yearned for, the steely-eyed stabilizer who could face down terrorists and rampant inflation without pausing for breath.

Now he is ridiculed as another faltering Leonid Brezhnev, the Cold War Soviet leader so uninspired that some were uncertain if he was alive or dead.

For Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, things are rolling backward even as he advances to almost certain victory in Sunday’s presidential poll.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians have turned out on city streets to demand that he leave. Once-apolitical yuppies looked up from their iPads and joined the throng. Even older people who were pitched under the avtobus by Boris Yeltsin’s shock-therapy reforms are calling for Putin’s exit.

So why does he rate a healthy 60 per cent in the pre-election polls, on track for another six years in the Kremlin?

“The media show that civil society is waking up and taking part for the first time in many years,” said political science professor Piotr Dutkiewicz of Carleton University. “But the population of Russia is 140 million and the protests are much more limited.”

Although middle-class Russians, a far smaller group than in the West, are at the vanguard of the protest movement, they are joined by a broad spectrum of others, from hard-line nationalists to environmentalists, democrats, free marketers and human-rights activists. Loosely led and at the moment centreless, the protest movement is still finding its political identity and is uncertain of its future.

But in Russia’s sprawling regions, the picture blurs.

“Outside the Golden Ring (near Moscow), Russia is still a desperately poor country,” said Jeffrey Kahn, a Russia expert at Southern Methodist University. “People, when polled, will routinely express support for human rights and rule of law. But at the same time they believe their short-term needs are best fulfilled by Putin.” ...