Kremlin on the offensive as Putin's United Russia party loses its iron grip

Ruling party expected to get much-reduced majority at tomorrow's parliamentary election

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The Independent Online

Russia votes tomorrow in parliamentary elections that are supposed to set the stage for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return the presidency next year.

But while there is little doubt that the outcome will be a processional victory for Mr Putin's party, United Russia, there are growing signs that after years of sky-high poll ratings, its public support is beginning to dip.

In one of many hints that the Kremlin is worried about the results, the country's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, has come under what it has called "unprecedented pressure" in the run-up to the vote.

A TV documentary aired yesterday suggested that Golos, which has run an interactive map of Russia on its website detailing electoral violations, is a CIA project bent on destabilising Russia. The group was also fined by a Moscow court yesterday for the illegal publication of opinion polls. Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director at Golos, said the Russian authorities are "concerned that they cannot control us".

There have been widespread reports of soldiers, public sector workers and students coming under pressure to vote for United Russia, and sources say the Kremlin is keen for the party to win over 65 per cent of the vote, while its real support figures hover around 40 per cent.

Three other parties are likely to make the Duma, none of whom are considered "real" opposition. Fair Russia, a Kremlin project designed to provide a reasonably loyal alternative to United Russia, appears to have "gone rogue" in recent weeks, with its MPs decrying voter fraud and promising protests if Mr Putin's party rigs the vote. Some analysts suggest this is all part of the game, while other sources say the party has genuinely found an independent voice. As always in the opaque world of Russian politics, the exact level of Kremlin connivance is hard to discern.

In the Russian blogosphere, United Russia is frequently referred to as "the party of crooks and thieves", a term coined by a blogger that has entered common parlance. An internet clip devised by a leading Russian satirist calls on Russians to spoil their ballots by crossing out the names of all the parties. "Cross out the thieving authorities. Vote against all," says the clip. "Vote for Russia."

"The regime cannot stop itself getting weaker," said veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky earlier this week.

But while the Kremlin is long used to dealing with the complaints of the marginalised liberal opposition, the broader-scale discontent that has appeared in recent months is far more worrying. Mr Putin has now effectively ruled Russia for the past 12 years, including a four-year stint as prime minister. In September, he announced that he and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President, would swap jobs again. But instead of proving a boost to his popularity, the Russian leader's poll ratings have begun to drop, as more Russians become uneasy at the idea of another decade of Mr Putin. In an unprecedented development, the leader was booed when he addressed the crowd after a martial arts contest at a Moscow stadium last month.

A poor showing for United Russia tomorrow will increase worries that Mr Putin's return to the Kremlin will not pass off as smoothly as planned. The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi has said it will bus in about 15,000 young activists, who will parade in central squares and demonstrate their support for Mr Putin and United Russia. Opposition groups are planning protests in central Moscow for the evening.

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