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In spite of everything, Putin is still popular in Russia

Russian President may seem impregnable after big re-election win but low-growth economy still a concern

Mr Vladimir Putin won big on Sunday.

According to the central election commission, the Russian President glides into his fourth term after winning his biggest election victory, with nearly 77 per cent of votes.

His nearest rival was a multi-millionaire communist who got more than 11 per cent by presenting himself as a Putin-plus, with a programme of nationalising the oligarchs' property instead of merely controlling it.

Mr Putin's popularity is a mystery to many in the West.

He has invaded Ukraine, grabbed its Crimean region for Russia and sponsored a rebellion against the government in Kiev - while lying about the presence of Russian troops fighting with the rebels even as their corpses were returned to Russia.

He has committed Russian forces to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in suppressing rebels with the utmost brutality. The economy turned sharply down in 2014, as the oil price fell and as economic sanctions were imposed.

The charge made by British Prime Minister Theresa May that Russia is likely to have sanctioned the use of a nerve agent against the Russian double agent, Mr Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this month has been dismissed with sarcastic contempt, with no effort made to assist the British authorities.

In his victory speech, Mr Putin said that the UK's allegations added to his majority.

At a gathering of mainly young Russian liberals, which I attended last weekend, Mr Lev Gudkov, the veteran pollster and head of the independent Levada Centre, showed the graphs that underpin the success.

UPTURN

A loss of popularity for Mr Putin after his 2012 election and then, with the taking of Crimea and the hostilities in Ukraine, there was a huge spike upwards to some 80 per cent of support.

In spite of declining incomes, rising prices and the viral videos showing the luxury in which senior officials live, Mr Putin has stayed at or near these heights, unthinkable for a democratic politician.

But Russians are not like democratic citizens. They prize stability, and thus strength at the top. Shorn of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, they rejoice in the return of part of it.

This appears to speak for a fourth presidential term in which tough leadership, patriotic propaganda, the marginalisation of liberal causes, such as minority rights, and continuing defiance of a West pictured as both effete and threatening will continue to be the major tropes.

Yet Mr Putin, not being stupid, must fear that the economy, mixed with youthful rejection of the rule of ageing and massively enriched top officials, may have its way in the end.

Russia's economy grew by 1.5 per cent last year. Growth of 1.5 per cent is anaemic for the world's biggest country.

Investment, domestic and foreign, is low; the energetic wooing of Chinese President Xi Jinping has yielded results falling below Mr Putin's hopes.

With a low-growth economy, Russia's claim to be a superpower pales before the continuing dominance of the United States and the fast-rising economic and strategic power of China. - REUTERS

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.

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