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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 09:36 GMT
Head-to-head: Has Putin been good for Russia?
Russians go the polls on Sunday to elect their president.

Incumbent Vladimir Putin enjoys an overwhelming approval rate. He has no real opponent in Sunday's election and is therefore expected to win the vote comfortably.

But has President Putin been good for Russia? BBC News Online asked two observers with differing views to comment.

Maria Lipman is an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center and a journalist - with doubts about Mr Putin.

The stability of oil prices means that at one level President Putin has been able to make peoples' lives better - pensions have almost doubled, take-home pay has grown.

And this is very significant when you consider that under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin there were massive wage arrears. He has also streamlined government.

But at what cost? He has displayed contempt for the rule of law. He has weakened all institutions, parliament, political parties, business leaders, regional heads. He has come down on the media. All national TV networks are under state control.

The checks and balances of government are almost gone. Corruption is a problem. There is no question that he is the supreme leader of Russia - whether he is a democratic president is something I have serious doubts about.

He has reinstituted this big-style leadership, encouraged the subservience of the elites. State media portrays him in a purely favourable light. Russia is a vast country - and in some places people's only access to information is through state TV.

We certainly do not see repression on the scale of the Soviet days, but even without it, he has successfully brought politicians in Russia into line.

How has this happened? He has fuelled further apathy in a nation that has grown increasingly disillusioned in the years since communism collapsed. We should not forget that in the late 1980s people found they could effect change; they stood up for democracy, they put an end to communist rule.

But gradually disbelief and cynicism has taken hold. The common attitude is that we can't change anything, nothing depends on us, all the decisions are taken at the top.

What Putin has done is push the people deeper into this state of apathy by sending the message: I will strengthen the state, I will take all the decisions, I will be a strong leader.

It is a two-way process of course, the people choose the leader they want, but to the extent that a leader shapes the nation, Putin has deepened the traditional Russian attitude: people do not believe they can make a difference.

Dmitri Gubin is a well-known radio phone-in presenter and magazine columnist - and is a Putin fan.

Firstly, Vladimir Putin has brought stability to Russia. This is very important.

Secondly, he has brought a mirror - a mirror of the people's own hopes and anxieties. Most people over 40 want the state to feed them, to find them a job, to do everything for them. They want a kind tsar, who will look after them.

If there is a problem in Russia, it is not with Putin, it is with the Russian people themselves. For a limited period, he is what the country needs.

Stability has helped to bring about economic growth of more than 8% per year. Incomes recalculated in hard currency are growing at 12% per year, and property prices are increasing at about 40% per year.

Ten years ago, I could park in the street where I live without any difficulty, but now it's a real problem - there are so many cars. That's how much wealthier people have become.

Media freedom is starting to be a problem, but there is no official censorship. A lot of people have begun practising self-censorship, without any pressure from their supervisors.

Nobody orders people to put a portrait of Vladimir Putin on their desk and nobody would be sacked for having a family portrait instead, but they choose a picture of the president of their own accord. That's why I say Russia does not have a problem of politics but of mentality.

I wish we had the equivalent of the BBC in Russia, but before the BBC was created in Britain all you had were newspapers propagating the views of the media tycoons. That was the environment from which the BBC emerged. Maybe a BBC will emerge in Russia too.

I would not say Vladimir Putin is too close to men in uniform. I know his chief bodyguard, and he is a normal guy.

These people are more or less Westernised even if they do think painting died with Rubens and have a weakness for big black German cars with flashing lights and klaxons. They are old-fashioned but are not necessarily dangerous.

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