Putin goes on pre-election lap of honour

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The Independent Online

Last week in a shock television announcement, he sacked his entire government. Two weeks today, he submits himself to the verdict of Russia's voters in the presidential election. It is an election that Vladimir Putin is guaranteed to win with an overwhelming, almost Soviet-era majority. The dubious reward will be another four years of trying to bend mighty, unruly Russia to his will.

To call this election one-sided is to underestimate Mr Putin's domination. Russia's hard-bitten political commentators are now talking less of an election than a referendum. And in a sense they are right. For the significance of the vote on 14 March lies not in who wins but by how wide a margin and with what level of turnout.

This is what will determine Mr Putin's room for manoeuvre in his second term. It is also why, even though he could safely afford to sit in his Kremlin office inviting in the cameras periodically to show him looking presidential, he has been crossing the country as energetically as any American in a tight race for the White House, meeting and greeting the people and defending his record.

He finished a week's tour of the Pacific Coast and eastern Siberia, flying back yesterday from Krasnoyarsk. The previous week, he was in the less distant and more prosaic region of the lower Volga - expanses of snow-covered plains, forests and rust belt cities that are Russia's conservative heartland. These are the places he needs to convert to faster economic reform, if that is what he wants to achieve.

The pre-election mood here could best be described as placid, with slivers of hope and a good dollop of resignation, and precious little open opposition or even scepticism towards the President. A local reporter called Nastya told me that when Mr Putin stopped over in the small minority republic of Chuvashia: "Some people turned out to see him, but there weren't any demonstrators, not even students, and I think that's a pity.''

There are other signs, too, that these regions of formerly entrenched Communist power maybe reconciled to Mr Putin. Pensioners, who suffered disproportionately from the Soviet collapse as both their place in the system and their state benefits collapsed, no longer look or sound so impoverished. Many of those who come to sell their produce in urban markets are wearing bright jackets and conspicuously new felt boots.

In Arzamas, a city of 120,000 south of lively trading city of Nizhni Novgorod, a group of younger pensioners in a "fashion club'' - one of many voluntary groups set up with charitable and foreign donations - were grudgingly positive about Mr Putin. Fresh from showing their new summer creations, many said that it was much easier now not only to buy food, but to get the dress fabric they wanted.

Pensions were paid on time now - a big difference - and have gone up; you could just about get by with careful budgeting and some jam or handicrafts to sell on the side. Their leading light, Yulia Zhukova, a buxom 72-year-old theatrically attired in black lace, was enthusiastic, while admitting that unlike many of the others she had the advantage of a job. ''Definitely, we live better now,'' she said. "People look and dress better.'' She said she had come around to Mr Putin and felt he surrounded himself with "intelligent, capable people''. Above all, "he has stabilised things''.

The city's deputy mayor who had previously headed the social services department for all 15 years of its existence, was more careful. On balance, she said, Mr Putin had achieved a lot and could achieve more. But when people looked back on the past decade, "they will probably find it very mixed''.

Cities across the lower Volga were devastated by the slump in defence procurement during the 1990s, but none more than Ulyanovsk, which suffered additionally from its formerly privileged status as Lenin's birthplace. The acting director of the giant UAZ car plant, Aleksandr Penkov, confirmed that, like many others, UAZ had cut jobs by more than 25 per cent in the past 10 years and had been on the verge of bank-ruptcy when it was bought by one of the lesser known "oligarchs'' three years ago.

Now, though, he said that the plant's fortunes had settled down and were showing a slight upturn. A weapons complex nearby and another heavy industrial complex, together employing more than 160,000 were in far worse shape. He said that the money for salaries now arrived on time and the regular cash shortages of the mid-1990s had been solved. He recognised that this had nothing directly to do with the President but it meant that workers were generally happier about life and this affected their view of Mr Putin.

President Putin may soon have reason to conclude that what is good for UAZ may be good for Russia, and will not harm his own prospects on the 14 March either.