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Why Russians look to Putin

With approval ratings above 70 percent, Putin is expected to easily win a second term next month.

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For more than four years, his public approval ratings have stayed at above 70 percent - undented despite mass poverty, urban terrorism, and an unresolved war in Chechnya.

Running for reelection in a vote set for March 14, President Vladimir Putin is apparently so confident that he has declined to debate any of his six challengers, and recently told supporters he would not retire from public life before anointing a successor who will "ensure a continuation of what there is now."

While Mr. Putin's popularity in his first term is clear, experts differ on its origins. Some argue that he's simply benefited from high global prices for Russia's biggest export, oil. Others suggest that Kremlin media control and straitjacketing of the democratic process have made public opinion irrelevant.

But a growing number of observers say the majority of Russians have good reason to believe in Putin as the man who turned his country's fortunes around, spinning stability out of chaos.

"There is a totally different mood in this country from what we had four years ago," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of Politika, an independent Moscow think tank. "Everyone was sunk in depression after all the disasters and humiliations of 1990s. Today there is optimism. The country is moving ahead, and we have things to be proud of again."

A virtual unknown, tapped as former President Boris Yeltsin's successor in 1999, Putin inherited a country reeling from a decade of economic contraction and foreign policy drift, the 1998 financial crash, and a wave of corruption scandals reaching into the upper echelons of the Kremlin. Perhaps most of all, the articulate and vigorous former KGB spy, who assumed power on New Year's Day 2000, shone by contrast with his doddering and sickly predecessor.

"Putin was the un-Yeltsin," says Alexei Pushkov, a leading TV public-affairs commentator. "Yeltsin squandered his early popularity, and by the end was hated by the electorate. But where Yeltsin was drunk, rambling, and buffoonish, Putin was young, sober, fit, and serious. People sighed with relief to see him."

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