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Putins iron fist wins favour among voters

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Putin's iron fist wins favour among voters
Russian President appears set to sweep election despite his autocratic style

UPDATED AT 9:08 AM EST Saturday, Mar. 13, 2004

IVANOVO, RUSSIA -- Seen from the outside, Vladimir Putin's time as President has been bad news for Russia.

Four years after he was propelled to power, Russia is still mired in a military quagmire in Chechnya, its once-vibrant free press is shackled, and the country has turned away from democracy and is sliding back toward the authoritarianism of its past.

Viewed from the factory floor in Russia's impoverished industrial heartland, though, things look different. Workers in the city of Ivanovo see Mr. Putin in a more favourable light, as a leader who has restored hope, jobs and a sense of national pride, things they lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union. That's why they, like most ordinary Russians, will vote overwhelmingly tomorrow to give him another four years in office.

If Mr. Putin is the autocrat the West increasingly believes him to be, he rules with the people's consent.

There may not have been an economic miracle in Ivanovo over the past four years, but the bleeding has stopped. The textile mills that once employed 70 per cent of the city's work force are no longer shutting down. Those that survived the tumult of the 1990s are bouncing back, and beginning to thrive again -- selling out their wares, buying new equipment and, crucially, hiring extra staff.

Irina Korobleva, a machine operator at the Novy Ivanovskiy textile factory, says Mr. Putin deserves much of the credit for the rebound. That's why she says she and everyone she knows will cast their votes tomorrow for the incumbent, believing that either the Communist candidate or another Boris Yeltsin-style democrat would lead the country to another disaster.

"Of course I'm voting for Putin," the auburn-haired 22-year-old says, pausing in the midst of a long shift of folding bed linens. "We live normal lives now. If it were not for him, things would be much worse."

Despite the fact Mr. Putin has barely bothered to campaign, most opinion surveys put his support at or near 70 per cent, with none of his five opponents expected to crack double digits in the vote. The rout will make clear the President has no serious political opponents, and, combined with the sweeping victory of pro-Kremlin forces in recent parliamentary elections, will open the field for Mr. Putin to govern as he chooses for the next four years.

Any concerns about a "creeping coup," as U.S. Senator John McCain recently described events in Russia, do not register with the Russian electorate. Four years ago, the war in Chechnya was cited by voters as the No. 2 issue in the election, just behind crippling inflation. Now it ranks a distant fourth, buried by economic concerns. Surveys show that more people are worried about the lingering influence of billionaire "oligarchs" like the jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the country's richest man, than are bothered by his sudden arrest last fall.

"When you don't have money to feed your family, when you work five or six jobs, you don't have time to watch TV. A lot of people don't know about the Khodorkovsky case, and a lot don't know the Chechen war is still going on," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Mr. Putin, she said, may be disliked by the urban intelligentsia, but he plays well in Russia's vast and impoverished heartland. "He has made their lives a little bit better, and brought hope."

In Ivanovo -- once known as the "city of brides" because of the many young women drawn to work here by the relatively high-paying textile jobs -- there's a sense that Mr. Putin has righted a country that was spinning out of control. Pensions are now paid on time and, though still small, have risen regularly over the past four years. The wage arrears that were epidemic during the Yeltsin era are a thing of the past.

Some people wish Mr. Putin could stay in office longer than two four-year terms. Ivanovo's regional legislature recently passed a motion calling for presidential terms to be stretched to seven years. The idea was rejected by the State Duma, or parliament. But without any obvious successor to Mr. Putin in sight, it will probably surface again.

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