In Kolomna, they trust Vlad the Cleanser to sort out Russia's enemies

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Workers at Vladimir Putin's campaign headquarters in Kolomna are so confident of success in the Russian presidential election that they do not even have a picture of their candidate on the wall. Nor are the acting president's supporters campaigning house-to-house.

Kolomna was once Ivan the Terrible's favourite town: As a boy he used to walk on stilts around its fortified kremlin, overlooking the waterlogged meadows where the Moskva and Oka rivers meet. On Sunday voters here, two hours drive south of the capital, go to the polls in an election which most accept - though without much enthusiasm - will make make Mr Putin the next Russian president.

"Putin is a grey personality with huge ambition, but he doesn't really know what to do," said Denis Philippov, 25, a local journalist who will not vote for him. "I'm sure he will tighten the screws on the media, but I don't think he will be able to crack down on the oligarchs."

Such outright scepticism is a minority view. In Kolomna, whose 160,000 inhabitants have been badly hit by the collapse of its machine building and locomotive factories, Mr Putin is seen as the man who will clean up the mess left by President Yeltsin. Although how exactly he will do that is still a mystery.

The collapse of heavy industry in the town should be fertile ground for Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, the only candidate apart from Mr Putin to have support in double figures. The number employed at the locomotive works has fallen from 20,000 to 8,000 in the last 10 years those left earn about £50 a week.

But even Lev Sornikov, 68, a retired teacher who is secretary of the local Communist Party, admits that "Putin has an appeal when people compare him with Yeltsin. People used to compare Gorbachev with Brezhnev in the same way."

The war in Chechnya is the key to Mr Putin's image as a strong, decisive leader. Mr Sornikov likes the way Mr Putin "didn't yield to pressure from Nato over Chechnya". "Higher casualties won't make Putin unpopular," he said. An officer from Kolomna killed in Chechnya was being buried as he spoke.

Denis Philippov agrees. He said: "The majority here support the war. Xenophobia has grown very much in Kolomna in the last seven months. People who used to be friendly to Caucasians now want to strangle them." He attributes the change to unrelenting anti-Chechen propaganda on state-controlled television channels.

Mr Putin has almost all the political cards in his hands here. Alexei Tkachov, a Putin campaigner, boasts that his candidate "has turned down free air time on television, because work comes first". But as television gives wall-to-wall coverage of all his activities, Mr Putin does not need to campaign in the traditional sense.

With few concrete policies, Mr Putin has managed to convince most voters that he represents a break with what they see as the ruinous and corrupt economic reforms of the Yeltsin era and the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.