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Last Updated: Monday, 3 December 2007, 12:15 GMT
Criticism cannot mask pro-Putin fervour
By Allan Little
BBC News, Moscow

Foreign condemnation of the elections as unfair will cut little ice here. Russia is a country emboldened under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, and increasingly disdainful of outside, especially Western, criticism.

Vladimir Putin speaks on Russian television before the election (29 November 2007)
Observers said the media was strongly in favour of Mr Putin's party

Anti-Western sentiment has been part of the undertow of the United Russia party's appeal.

The party's youth movement, Nashi, routinely accuses the opposition parties of being tools of Russia's foreign enemies.

The criticism from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is no surprise - the mainstream media have given overwhelmingly disproportionate and positive coverage to United Russia from the beginning, while the opposition parties have been systematically marginalised.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of organised collective voting.

Many people say they have come under pressure at work to turn up and cast their vote in the patriotic interest.

'Strong man'

But none of this means that the result does not reflect the prevailing sentiment in Russia, which is - indeed - overwhelmingly pro-Putin.

We used to believe in the Tsar - now we need a strong man to solve our problems
College lecturer

There is a paradox in the result that reveals something intriguing about the state of the country.

The eight years of Mr Putin's rule have seen a clear retreat from the Westernising, democratising experiment under former President Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s.

But that retreat has been endorsed by most Russians at the ballot box.

"We used to believe in the Tsar," one college lecturer said.

"Now we need a strong man to solve our problems. This was also the basis of Stalin's rule, so maybe this mentality can't be wiped out."

Levers of power

When Russians remember the 1990s, they remember what accompanied the introduction of the radical pro-democratic reforms - chaos, criminality and the plundering of national resources by a tiny elite, who became super rich while the majority sank into poverty.

Food queue in Moscow (20 January 1992)
Russians do not remember fondly the economic crises of the 1990s

High inflation wiped out life savings and pensions.

That experience, at least as much as the way the campaign was conducted, explains this result. Mr Putin is genuinely popular.

His supporters have argued all along that a result like this would give him a mandate to carry on as some kind of "national leader" even after he steps down as president at the end of his second term in March.

No-one knows what that means, but it contains the probability that when he leaves office he will take the levers of power with him.

The relationship between Mr Putin and the president who succeeds him could well invert the formal state power structure, with real power being exercised through informal, rather than constitutional, channels. It would be unprecedented.

Russia now waits for the president to declare his hand - to state clearly how he intends to use the moral authority that his supporters believe this election result gives him.

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