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Russia sets stage for Putin’s Kremlin return

Russia prepared Saturday to return strongman Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin for a record third term that begins under a tide of protests unseen since the Soviet era and mounting tensions with the West.

The 59-year-old ex-KGB spy’s victory in Sunday’s presidential ballot at this stage seems beyond doubt.

State forecasts show him storming to a first-round victory with 60 percent of the vote and his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov — a dour but seasoned lawmaker who is running for the fourth time — taking second with 15 percent.

The tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov and the flamboyant but ultimately pro-Kremlin populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are expected to battle for third place while the former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov is looking to finish last.

But Putin’s landslide victory may only mask an era of political uncertainty that has descended on Russia and contrasts sharply with the current prime minister’s commanding first two terms as president between 2000 and 2008.

The emotional street protests that erupted in response to a fraud-tainted December parliamentary ballot have since swelled into a broader opposition movement whose reliance on social media echoes the Arab Spring revolts.

The largest demonstrations have thus far been confined to Russia’s main cities and the authorities point to polls showing the anti-Putin cause backed by only a marginal fraction of the nation.

Yet Moscow’s role in Russia’s recent political history has been overwhelming and the city is drawing an extra 6,300 police from the surrounding regions to make sure that Monday’s post-election rallies do not spill over to Red Square.

Putin himself has put a brave face on the sudden show of public displeasure by telling Western media executives he was “very happy about this situation.”

“I think this is a very good experience for Russia,” he said this week.

But Putin has never before ruled from anything less than an impregnable position of power and few dare to predict how he might respond now.

“The system needs comprehensive political and economic reform. But (Putin) has neither the financial nor the political capital to accomplish this,” said Mark Urnov of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The London-based Chatham House policy institute called Putin’s return “the latest stage in a continuing process of deterioration, not the start of a renewal, as some in the West might hope.”

The entire campaign has been driven by an undercurrent of anti-Western rhetoric whose indignant tone now threatens to set back the “reset” US President Barack Obama tried pressing with Russia in 2009.

“The days when Russia could be lectured or preached to are over,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week.

The campaign also saw Putin’s almost imperial refusal to debate his opponents — a feature of past elections that aims to paint him as a man of action who is too busy to engage in polemics with rivals.

The four rank outsiders have all admitted to only having the ambition of finishing second and possibly joining a runoff should Putin fail to pick up 50 percent of the vote.

“I really want to make it into the second round,” the metals magnate Prokhorov remarked before attending a Friday night campaign concert that featured a special performance by the Russia pop empress Alla Pugacheva.

Putin for his part looked relaxed as he leaned back against the table and addressed the nation one last time before the vote.

“We must consolidate all facets of society to the greatest degree possible,” Putin said in the brief Friday night address.

“We must work smoothly and constructively, without shocks or revolutions,” said Putin.

The marathon election stretches over nine time zones and begins with the opening of polls in the Far East at 2000 GMT Saturday.

It culminates with their close in the western exclave of Kaliningrad 21 hours later at 1700 GMT on Sunday.