RUS­SIA

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plot to pro­voke regime change in Rus­sia.

“The bat­tle for Rus­sia goes on, and we will win,” he told a crowd es­ti­mated at 140,000.

The op­po­si­tion ar­gues that gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees were co­erced into at­tend­ing that and pre­vi­ous ral­lies.

Al­though some of the af­fec­tion for Mr. Putin at the sta­dium was clearly gen­uine, peo­ple in­ter­viewed by The Washington Times said they did not at­tend of their own free will.

“I’m fed up with all this,” said one par­tic­i­pant who re­fused to iden­tify him­self. “I’d tell you why I’m here, but I don’t want any trou­ble.”

Mr. Putin, 59, served as pres­i­dent from 2000 to 2008, when he was forced to step down by con­sti­tu­tional lim­its on con­sec­u­tive terms.

He handed over power to his hand-picked suc­ces­sor, Dmitry Medvedev, who an­nounced last au­tumn that he would not seek re-elec­tion and would back Mr. Putin for pres­i­dent.

The an­nounce­ment evoked re­sent­ment among Rus­sia’s nascent mid­dle class and the first stir­rings of dis­sent, which later erupted into street protests af­ter sus­pected vote fraud in De­cem­ber’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions won by Mr. Putin’s United Rus­sia party.

No runoff ex­pected

Still, Mr. Putin re­mains Rus­sia’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian, a stand­ing that his crit­ics says is the re­sult of tight Krem­lin con­trol over me­dia, po­lit­i­cal par­ties and the elec­toral process.

“He’s con­sis­tently evis­cer­ated all other cen­ters of power,” said Ms. Lip­man. “He’s sup­pressed and/or taken un­der con­trol of par­lia­ment, po­lit­i­cal par­ties, re­gional gov­er­nors, big busi­ness and ma­jor me­dia. Plus he’s ef­fec­tively se­cured the po­lit­i­cal arena from any other un­wanted play­ers.”

De­spite this grip on power, opin­ion polls by in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tions in the weeks run­ning up to the elec­tions sug­gested that Mr. Putin could be forced into a runoff.

But state-run and in­de­pen­dent poll­sters now say Mr. Putin will win about 60 per­cent of the vote.

“It’s not of vi­tal im­por­tance for Putin to win in the first round, but he would cer­tainly pre­fer this,” said Sergei Mikheyev of the Moscow-based Cen­ter for Po­lit­i­cal As­sess­ment. “But the op­po­si­tion will claim the polls have been fal­si­fied, what­ever hap­pens.”

“They have no other way for­ward,” he said. “They have been say­ing the peo­ple won’t vote for Putin, but it looks, in fact, as if they will.”

Mr. Putin said Wed­nes­day that the op­po­si­tion would re­sort to dirty tricks to tar­nish the elec­tion re­sults and that plans are un­der way to stuff bal­lot boxes and even or­der the “sac­ri­fi­cial mur­der” of a prom­i­nent fig­ure to pro­voke more demon­stra­tions.

“They will bump some­one off and then blame the au­thor­i­ties for it. Th­ese sorts of peo­ple are ready to do any­thing — I am not ex­ag­ger­at­ing,” said the prime min­is­ter, a former KGB of­fi­cial.

Lead­ers of Rus­sia’s di­verse protest move­ment have pledged to take to the streets in the days af­ter the vote, and po­lice Wed­nes­day pre­vented the dis­tri­bu­tion of tents to op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers who plan to camp out in Moscow to protest Mr. Putin’s re-elec­tion.

“No one knows what is go­ing to hap­pen af­ter the elec­tions,” protest leader Yev­ge­nia Chirikova said. “But a cer­tain process is un­der way that is un­stop­pable.

“Peo­ple have ceased to be afraid and are go­ing out onto the streets,” she said. “Peo­ple have started to laugh at Putin. And that, you know, is fatal for a politi­cian in Rus­sia.”

Need for change

Mr. Putin’s ex­pected re­turn to the Krem­lin could keep him in power un­til 2024 be­cause the pres­i­den­tial term has been ex­tended from four years to six.

How­ever, an­a­lysts pre­dict that ris­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion means Mr. Putin will face hard times in the near fu­ture, mak­ing a sec­ond term un­likely.

“He’s got a max­i­mum of one term,” said Fraser Cameron, head of the Brus­sels-based Eu-rus­sia think tank. “But much will de­pend on how the econ­omy de­vel­ops. If he gets con­tin­u­ing oil prices of above $120 [a bar­rel], he can hang on. But he’s got so many prom­ises he can’t ful­fill in terms of pen­sions, so­cial spend­ing and de­fense and so on.

“Prob­a­bly by this sum­mer there will be ris­ing so­cial dis­con­tent when peo­ple re­al­ize that th­ese prom­ises will not be ful­filled,” he said. “The ge­nie is out of the bot­tle: He has al­ready lost Moscow and St. Peters­burg, and he’s fallen back in the heart­land.”

Even among those who praise Mr. Putin’s achieve­ments dur­ing his 12 years in power, there is an aware­ness that he must change to sur­vive.

“Putin sta­bi­lized the coun­try, and he gave the peo­ple back some dig­nity,” said Alexan­der Rahr, di­rec­tor of the Ber­lin-based Berthold Beitz Cen­ter for Rus­sia, Ukraine, Be­larus and Cen­tral Asia. “But the Rus­sian peo­ple have changed a lot since 2000, and he needs to change as well.”

Mr. Putin’s re-elec­tion is un­likely to change Rus­sia’s for­eign poli­cies sig­nif­i­cantly, but re­la­tions with the West could de­te­ri­o­rate fur­ther. He also has re­jected Pres­i­dent Obama’s at­tempt to “re­set” U.S.Rus­sian re­la­tions.

In De­cem­ber, Mr. Putin ac­cused the United States of be­ing be­hind the on­go­ing protests and said op­po­si­tion lead­ers had acted on a “sig­nal” from Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton.

“It’s ob­vi­ous he has been pulling the strings,” said Mr. Cameron. “But his anti-u.s. rhetoric has not gone un­no­ticed in Washington and Brus­sels and could make it tricky once he’s back in the Krem­lin to re­store good re­la­tions with Western lead­ers.”

RIA-NOVOSTI VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin is ex­press­ing cer­tainty that he will re­turn to the pres­i­dency af­ter Rus­sia’s elec­tion Sun­day. Mass ral­lies held in sup­port of his can­di­dacy in­clude some in the crowds who feel forced to at­tend.

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