- - Thursday, March 1, 2012

MOSCOW Stung by ongoing protests, Vladimir Putin and his supporters have responded with mass rallies across Russia ahead of Sunday’s presidential election - a tactic that seems to have paid off.

“We’ve seen an intense election campaign by Putin, and it looks to have been effective,” said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “It’s almost a given now that he will win in the first round of voting.”

A series of pro-Putin rallies culminated in Moscow Feb. 23, when Mr. Putin, the prime minister, took to the stage at Luzhniki Stadium to urge tens of thousands of supporters to “defend the fatherland” from what he has called a U.S.-backed plot to provoke regime change in Russia.

“The battle for Russia goes on, and we will win,” he told a crowd estimated at 140,000.

The opposition argues that government employees were coerced into attending that and previous rallies.

Although some of the affection for Mr. Putin at the stadium was clearly genuine, people interviewed by The Washington Times said they did not attend of their own free will.

“I’m fed up with all this,” said one participant who refused to identify himself. “I’d tell you why I’m here, but I don’t want any trouble.”

Mr. Putin, 59, served as president from 2000 to 2008, when he was forced to step down by constitutional limits on consecutive terms.

He handed over power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who announced last autumn that he would not seek re-election and would back Mr. Putin for president.

The announcement evoked resentment among Russia’s nascent middle class and the first stirrings of dissent, which later erupted into street protests after suspected vote fraud in December’s parliamentary elections won by Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.

No runoff expected

Still, Mr. Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician, a standing that his critics says is the result of tight Kremlin control over media, political parties and the electoral process.

“He’s consistently eviscerated all other centers of power,” said Ms. Lipman. “He’s suppressed and/or taken under control of parliament, political parties, regional governors, big business and major media. Plus he’s effectively secured the political arena from any other unwanted players.”

Despite this grip on power, opinion polls by independent organizations in the weeks running up to the elections suggested that Mr. Putin could be forced into a runoff.

But state-run and independent pollsters now say Mr. Putin will win about 60 percent of the vote.

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