Low turnout the only doubt as Putin plays security card

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The Independent Online

Photographs of the dead, mostly bright-eyed students and children, are propped against the stone monument commemorating the 119 people killed by the bomb blast in south Moscow which four years ago helped make Vladimir Putin the President of Russia.

Photographs of the dead, mostly bright-eyed students and children, are propped against the stone monument commemorating the 119 people killed by the bomb blast in south Moscow which four years ago helped make Vladimir Putin the President of Russia.

As he stands for re-election this Sunday, he will stress the issue of security.

The bomb exploded early in the morning of 13 September 1999 in the basement of an eight-storey apartment building at 6 Kashirskoye Shosse, which was filled with working-class Russians. The choice of target made every Russian family feel that they could be the next victims. Five days earlier a bomb had killed 92 people in Guryanova Street, also in Moscow.

Mr Putin, the former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the recently appointed Prime Minister, was presented as the man who would rescue Russians from their fears. Three weeks later he launched the invasion of Chechnya, and his air of vigorous competence made him extremely popular.

The war in Chechnya is continuing but Mr Putin continues to give Russians a sense of security, which will be enough to ensure that he will be re-elected as Russian President for another four years on Sunday.

Most of the Russians walking past the little shrine to the bomb victims said yesterday they would vote for Mr Putin. But they expressed their preference without enthusiasm. Yuri Simonov, a man in his thirties who was working in a nearby market, said: "I am not quite happy with Putin, but I don't see any other possible candidate. He has managed to make life a bit safer."

The only vociferous dissenters were two elderly women, pensioners in their eighties, whose anger mounted as they shouted: "What is the use of voting. They are all just stealing. It is worse now than it was after the war." Another woman, a housewife, also said that she would not vote. She wondered if the bombing campaign in 1999 had really been devised by Chechens. The only doubt about the election revolves around the turnout of voters, with the government doing everything to get over 50 per cent of voters to cast ballots to avoid a second round of voting. In the parliamentary election in December, in which parties supporting the Kremlin made a clean sweep, only 56 per cent voted. The administration has mobilised to get people to the polls. In one St Petersburg constituency, a defeated liberal candidate in December alleged that "400 students at a military academy were marched to one polling station, and an officer checked every ballot paper" to make sure they voted for his opponent. Similar tactics are likely to be tried again. The triumphalism of the Kremlin does not quite mirror popular perception. Polls show that a majority thinks that Mr Putin has restored stability but achieved little in Chechnya or in developing the economy. Boris Kagarlitsky, a political scientist, said: "Putin really has not done very much during his first term and there have been few big policy changes."

But Mr Putin yesterday showed his total control of government by reshuffling his new cabinet and appointing Sergei Lavrov, the highly regarded Russian ambassador to the United Nations since 1994, as the new Foreign Minister. Mr Lavrov replaces Igor Ivanov, who has been Foreign Minister since 1998. At the same time, the number of cabinet members has been reduced from 30 to 17. Foreign policy is likely to continue as before, made by Mr Putin and the presidential staff.

The secret of Mr Putin's political strength is that he projects efficiency and control but has not significantly changed the power structure he inherited from Boris Yeltsin, the former president. He had been fortunate that the price of oil has gone up, invigorating the economy, and Russians are grateful to escape the sense of chronic insecurity they felt during the 1990s after the collapse of communism and the financial crash in 1998. But the strength of the Russian state is still fragile, as demonstrated by the embarrassing failure of the Northern Fleet to fire ballistic missiles during a recent naval exercise witnessed by Mr Putin.

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