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Despite scenes of defiance, plenty of Russians support Putin as election nears

<i>Vera Savina/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Commuters travel on a themed metro train dedicated to the upcoming presidential election in Moscow on February 27. The slogan reads:
Vera Savina/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Commuters travel on a themed metro train dedicated to the upcoming presidential election in Moscow on February 27. The slogan reads: "Together we are a force - vote for Russia!"

By Matthew Chance, CNN

Moscow (CNN) — There is an inevitability about the outcome of Russia’s looming presidential election.

Like it or not, Vladimir Putin, the man driving a catastrophic war in Ukraine, a brutal crackdown on dissent, and a lurch toward isolation in Russia, now the most sanctioned nation on earth, is poised to win a fifth term in the Kremlin and appears as much in control of Russia as at any time over the past 24 years.

You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the unprecedented scenes of defiance across Russia in the weeks before the vote, as thousands turned out at makeshift memorials to Alexey Navalny, the prominent Russian opposition leader who died suddenly in an Arctic penal colony last month.

Hundreds were detained, according to one human rights group, for simply laying flowers in his memory.

The crackdown didn’t stop thousands of determined people attending his funeral in Moscow either and even now, as Russia goes to the polls – with nationwide voting taking place Friday to Sunday – a steady stream of mourners meanders past his grave site in a small but continuing act of defiance to the Kremlin.

“Maybe if Alexey was in the election, I would vote for him. But there is nobody now,” one man told CNN in broken English outside the gates of the cemetery where Navalny is laid to rest. He refused to identify himself for fear of repercussions.

“I will go to vote, but now maybe just write his name,” he added, suggesting he will spoil his ballot.

Other Navalny supporters told CNN they would do the same, but few believe it’s much more than a gesture.

One young woman named Yulia, who had just laid flowers on Navalny’s grave, said she remained optimistic there would be change in Russia, though not soon.

“Even though Alexey Navalny is dead, there is always hope,” she said, “I think there are always people who do not support Vladimir Putin,” she added.

But there are also plenty of Russians who do, at least for now.

‘He made Russia a much better country’

Putin’s pariah status in the West, where the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes, the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine that is estimated to have inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, and even the hardships and brutal suppressions at home seem hardly to have dented his approval ratings.

The latest polling, from the respected Levada Center in Moscow, puts public trust in Putin at an astonishing 86%.

Of course, in a country where critics are routinely jailed, exiled or killed, public opinion polls are flawed. Another factor is the constant pro-Kremlin propaganda pumped out on state-controlled media, where most Russians get their news.

But as this election approaches, you can’t discount what so many ordinary Russians tell you, face to face.

In the suburbs of northern Moscow, a vast Soviet-era exhibition park is staging “Russia” – a showcase of the country’s achievements in industry and agriculture, the arts and warfare.

And while Navalny’s funeral was attended by notable numbers, this one exhibition center attracts tens of thousands of people every week, many of them domestic tourists with their families visiting the capital, like pilgrims, from Russia’s distant corners.

Everyone CNN spoke with there was stridently pro-Putin.

“We will definitely vote for Putin, he made Russia a much better country,” said Dmitry, a 41-year-old real estate worker from the Komi Republic, in Russia’s far north, who was visiting Moscow with his wife.

Asked about the war in Ukraine and if he held Putin responsible for Russia’s involvement, he replied: “No, we support him in it. Victory will be ours and if it is needed, I will go and fight too.”

Sergey, a 25-year-old office worker, said he felt his job was secure and stable, with good health benefits. He rejected any suggestion that international sanctions on Russia had made the country poorer.

“I just don’t feel any impact of sanctions as an ordinary Russian citizen,” he insisted.

Artyom, a 30-year-old design engineer and an enthusiastic Putin supporter, said the war in Ukraine and the tensions with the West had put Russia on the right path.

“Russia needs to be acknowledged in the world arena; we are not a second-class country,” he said.

Unexpected challenges

It is an insecurity that Putin has long been able to successfully tap, and his efforts to bolster Russian pride, as well as to boost living standards in the country, have delivered genuine popular support over many years.

What is unclear now, though, is how much longer that support will last, especially if Russian war casualties mount, crackdowns on dissent gather pace and economic hardships dig in.

Already there have been serious and unexpected challenges.

Even before the public mourning of Navalny, thousands of Russians came out to support the nomination of an anti-war presidential hopeful, Boris Nadezhdin, whose candidature was ultimately rejected by the Russian election authorities.

But his collection of tens of thousands of signatures of support was a sharp reminder that while the result of the upcoming presidential election in Russia may be inevitable, Putin’s popularity among ordinary Russians could eventually face a serious challenge.

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