Putin slips in polls but gets surprise backing as the presidential elections enter final week


As Russia's presidential election campaign entered its final week the odds-on favourite, acting President Vladimir Putin, took a break at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Over the weekend he surprisingly received the backing of the Komsomol, Russia's young Communist organisation, which urged its members to give him preference over the Communist candidate, Mr Gennady Zyuganov.

Speaking on the ORT television channel, Mr Igor Malyarov, the first secretary of the Komsomol said: "I call on the patriotic and communist youth not to vote for Zyuganov. Acting President Vladimir Putin is a bit of a mystery to us now, that's true, and we cannot directly call on you to vote for him, but at the same time a whole series of concrete actions by him happen to meet the requirements of modern Russian society."

It was not all good news however, as there were indications that Mr Putin's popularity was being eroded and that he might not manage to get the 50 per cent of votes necessary to stop the election going into a second round.

In order to be declared valid, the election must also attract a turnout of at least 50 per cent and according to a poll in the Izvestiya newspaper there have been indications of growing apathy among the electorate.

As the poll came out, Mr Putin vowed to put Russia's struggle against poverty at the top of his action list if elected head of state in next weekend's elections.

In an interview on the popular Radio Mayak station in Moscow Mr Putin said the cost of a second round would be similar to that of all the pensions in the Moscow region.

He also attacked the small group of businessmen who have used their immense wealth to exercise political power in Russia. "Such a class of oligarchs will cease to exist," he said. "We will work with all layers of society."

ORT, which has been a strong backer of Mr Putin since the start of the campaign, published a poll on Saturday which said his rating had fallen to 48 per cent at the weekend compared to 53 per cent a week ago.

Russian opinion polls have been notoriously unreliable in the past and there have been allegations that some have been rigged for political purposes. The ORT poll could, therefore, have been designed to spur voters out of their apathy.

Mr Zyuganov remains on 19 per cent, while Mr Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Liberal Yabloko party, remains in third place with a mere 5 per cent.

In the meantime, the pro-Putin campaign continued on state-sponsored TV. RTR channel on Friday night ran the first in a series of hour-long documentaries on Mr Putin's life. No other candidate has been treated in the same way.

The documentary portrayed him as a good student in Leningrad whose mother was reduced to sweeping the yards of apartment blocks in order to help raise her family.

He was efficient and organised. He was a KGB agent but never a stukach, the Russian word for an informer. At one stage it appeared he might become a suitable candidate for canonisation.

AFP adds: Three Russian policemen were killed and six others wounded when rebels attacked checkpoints in Russian-held areas of Chechnya, the interior ministry said on Saturday, quoted by Interfax.

Guerrillas mounted raids on several checkpoints, including one at Shalanzhi, 30 km south-west of the capital, Grozny, and another near the village of Komsomolskoye further east.

The raids were rebuffed, Interfax reported, citing the interior ministry's press centre.