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Russians' political apathy frustrates feisty young journalist

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For a society accustomed to strong leadership and paternalistic government, the country's controlled political situation and resurgent economy is a welcome relief to many. But critics warn of authoritarianism masquerading as democracy.

"[Mr.] Putin cares about image, about appearances ... but there are no checks and balances, no accountability, no relevant opposition," says Masha Lipman, a liberal political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center. "This government is sophisticated, it's subtle."

Trappings of democracy?

Russia indeed wears many of the trappings of democracy: well-attended elections with numerous parties and candidates; national and regional parliaments; a public chamber of civil society representatives; and media reports lambasting the government. Putin appears set to make good on his promise to fulfill his constitutional requirement to relinquish the presidency when his second consecutive term expires this spring.

But the probable election on Sunday of Gazprom chief and longtime Putin aide Dmitri Medvedev has sparked speculation that the president will attempt to maintain his influence in a beefed-up prime minister's post under Mr. Medvedev – just the latest example of the consolidation of power that has characterized his eight-year tenure.

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