- - Thursday, December 1, 2011

MOSCOW Popular support for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his ruling party is falling as voters prepare for Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

“Opposition to Putin is huge, and it’s growing rapidly,” said Moscow-based journalist Alexei Korolyov.

“Every day, there are more and more people asking themselves, ‘Why did I go for this guy 10 years ago?’ And you hear people say this everywhere, not only in Moscow or St. Petersburg.”

State-run polls put support for Mr. Putin and his United Russia party at about 50 percent, but independent surveys suggest the true figure is much lower. Analysts say the party has a low chance of retaining the two-thirds majority it has held since 2007.

The hardening of the public’s attitude about Mr. Putin was on display at a sports event in Moscow in mid-November, when at least one section of the crowd appeared to boo him.

Alexei Navalny, an anti-graft activist and widely read blogger, said the jeers and catcalls signal “the end of an era.” He is a highly influential figure in an increasingly politicized Russian Internet community, and coined United Russia’s popular, unofficial nickname: “the party of swindlers and thieves.”

Dissent has been growing about a number of issues, such as suspected mass corruption by United Russia officials and the prospect of two more terms in the Kremlin for Mr. Putin, who will seek a third presidential election next year after being constitutionally bound to step down as president in 2008.

Opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party, has suggested that the sudden spark of opposition to Mr. Putin’s rule represents a “deep historical shift” in the nation’s mindset.

Others agree. “People are fed up with Putin,” senior Yabloko official Galina Mikhaleva told The Washington Times. “State-run TV earlier zombified the people, but the Internet has played a huge role in waking them up.

“When people imagine another 12 years of Putin in power, they begin to feel very bad,” Ms. Mikhaleva added.

But there is little doubt here - even among opposition parties - that United Russia will triumph in Sunday’s elections.

“Everything is decided by the Kremlin, by Putin,” Ms. Mikhaleva said, adding that it is “likely” the polls would be rigged in advance.

“We even had elections under Stalin,” she said with a laugh, a reference to the single-candidate-voting formalities of the Soviet Union.

Yabloko will field candidates on Sunday, but it is unlikely to meet the 7 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. The only opposition parties predicted to gain seats in the new parliament are the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the A Just Russia party.

The Communists are largely seen as the party of the pension-age Soviet generation, but most observers dismiss the LDPR and A Just Russia as Kremlin-backed projects designed as an outlet for protest votes.

“The Putin regime is afraid of open competition and all the genuine opposition parties have been banned,” Solidarnost political committee member Ivan Tyutrin told The Times.

Solidarnost is part of the Parnas coalition, which brings together several well-known opposition figures, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. It was denied permission to run in the elections after authorities alleged it had violated poll registration procedures.

Mr. Tyutrin also said that the polls would see “colossal falsification.”

“Governors in the regions have been ordered to guarantee a good result for United Russia,” he added, saying that they face the threat of dismissal if they fail to do so.

The main independent Russian election observer group, Golos, has reported complaints from workers and students who say they are being pressured by bosses or university staffers - themselves under pressure “from above” - to cast their votes for United Russia.

Local media reported that one employer has asked his workers to photograph their ballot papers to prove they had voted “right.”

Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission (CEC), a supposedly neutral body, has come under fire after its ad urging Russians to vote was revealed to be almost identical to United Russia’s campaign posters. The only difference is the CEC version lacks a United Russia symbol.

A CEC spokesman denied any wrongdoing.

CEC chief Vladimir Churov is a United Russia member who once said, “My first rule is that Putin is also right.” He has been accused of pressuring TV companies to ban opposition ads in the run-up to the voting.

Opposition groups plan rallies in Moscow on and after Election Day. But with 30,000 Kremlin-backed youth activists planning to set up camp in the city, the opposition’s plans to demonstrate seem as doomed as their ambitions to contest Sunday’s voting.

“It is clear by now that the results will be massively rigged by the authorities to ensure that United Russia gets on top with a massive majority,” Konstantin von Eggert wrote in a column for the state-run RIA Novosti news agency’s English language website.

“It boasts of wide-ranging support, but it has to resort to dirty tricks.”

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