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When Putin Was Booed: The Long Road Back From Fading Popularity To Kremlin Victory

Analysis: Though opponents are still questioning the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin's win in Sunday's presidential race, one Russian political observer charts the course of his sudden unpopularity last year to an election campaign that saw

Putin sheds tears on national television (russianhockeyde)
Putin sheds tears on national television (russianhockeyde)
Gleb Cherkasov

MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin admitted that during his victory speech to supporters in Manege Square, there were tears in his eyes. But the ever-proud winner of Russia's presidential election had an explanation. "It was the wind," he said.

Still, how Putin was feeling was apparent to the whole world.

The emotions that overcame the Russian leader during the victory rally in the capital's Manege Square could not be solely explained by the joy of winning the election. What else was at stake?

Both his opponents and supporters doubted the prime minister would be able to claim total victory in his bid to return to the presidency. Most talk was about the measure of the outcome. Would voting go to a second round? Would the elections simply be "sterile," the same old story?

So Sunday evening in Manege Square would turn out to be payback for Putin for a far less pleasant evening in Moscow's Olympisky Stadium complex in November. There are different versions of events that night. Did the whole hall boo the prime minister? Maybe they were booing someone else? Whatever the case, the next day, officials claimed there was, in fact, no booing at all. But the denials were made with such zeal, no one believed them.

At that point, a suspicion formed in the minds of the people. Just maybe, Vladimir Putin was no longer popular. This would be an indictment of both him and the political system he had created. After Putin had been transformed from a Kremlin official into a public figure, he had always enjoyed high approval ratings, which were both the goal itself and a means to an end.

Putin had moved closer to both the Liberals and Conservatives, changed domestic and foreign policy priorities, but every move was always accompanied by high ratings, showering this political figure with power and stature.

But the decline in popularity had actually begun several months earlier, when the prime minister's unbridled enthusiasm started to cause some irritation.

It was reported internationally, and the mass meetings with their anti-Putin slogans, and the relative failure of Putin's party in the Duma elections seemed to be a prologue to significant change.

A special thank you

On the night of the elections, having returned to his headquarters, Putin got in touch with workers at the Uralvagonzavod tank factory in Nizhny Tagil, which he visited in December, an encounter that had given him great encouragement.

The president-elect paid homage to the old political instincts that his supporters had awakened in him, and promised to return to the factory and solve its problems. But most of all, he said these workers had helped him decide to continue the fight. It is rare indeed for Putin to credit those whose actions inspire him.

All these past months, Vladimir Putin worked to regain the confidence of the public, not of everyone, but of those who were willing to support him. The election campaign was conducted vigorously, in full compliance with the law, the number of votes rising with the number of hands shaken. A fire was lit under campaign workers: either work for a Putin victory, or realize that "no one is irreplaceable." The frontrunner was also bound to benefit from the errors made by his opponents.

Pleasing poll figures began to come out around three weeks ago, but they were more for the mind than the soul. The rally in Moscow's Luzhniki stadium on February 23 was meant to restore confidence in the people, but there was still a lot of time before the vote.

At Manege Square, people heard how it was "not just a Russian presidential election, it was a very important test for everyone, for all of our people. It was a test of political maturity, of independence." These words gave an insight into his happiness and what he had gone through in the last few months.

The road from the booing crowd at the Olympisky Stadium to the cheers at Manege Square was a long one, but he reached it, with a bit of work and patience. Now, Putin feels he has fresh evidence of his popularity, and he will use this as an instrument of state policy.

However, the situation has not returned to what it was a few years ago. And not only will Vladimir Putin not squander this latest rebound in popularity, he will guard it very carefully.

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Photo - russianhockeyde

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