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Vladimir Putin's 'managed democracy' faces key test in Russia

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"Russia is developing democracy, but the government must build the foundations for it," including law-and-order, social stability, raised living standards and an evolved, responsible civil society, he adds.

Support for United Russia is slipping

Kremlin spin doctors stress their narrative, which is that Sunday's elections will feature a free choice by Russian voters among an acceptable range of viable alternatives. On the surface, it's a persuasive case. Seven parties, spanning a full spectrum from the Communist Party on the left, to the liberal Yabloko, to the nationalist Patriots of Russia, are on the ballot and at least three of them are projected to pass the 7 percent hurdle they need to clear to enter the 450-seat State Duma.            

Though the commanding heights of Russia's media are state-controlled, and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has been granted the lion's share of positive coverage, opposition parties have been able to get their message out. Perhaps most telling of all, as public opinion polls show UR's popular support slipping below the crucial 50 percent mark, there have been signs of sincere panic among top officials.

Speaking to a meeting of top UR apparatchiks last week, Putin urged them to redouble efforts to get out the vote Sunday, warning that loss of the parliament's pro-Kremlin majority could plunge Russia into a crisis similar to that currently shaking the European Union.

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