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This would not be the first time that Putin has resorted to political stunts in the run-up to an important election. Conspiracy theories still circulate that the government was behind a series of apartment bombings on the evening of Putin’s first election in 2000. Whether or not that’s true, Putin certainly tried to exploit the attacks to his advantage, blaming the bombings on Chechen terrorists and successfully presenting himself as the man to keep Russia safe. More recently, during the 2008 election, the government claimed to have stopped a sniper planning to kill Putin near the Red Square. Given this recent history, it’s little wonder that many Russians have dismissed the latest assassination plot as business as usual by the Kremlin.
The symbolic purpose of these political stunts is to portray Putin as a strong leader, but increasingly the image he projects is one of weakness. Months of popular demonstrations against the government, driven by chants of “Russia without Putin,” have given the lie to official claims about Putin’s popularity and exposed a real rift within Russian society. Putin may still control the levers of power in Moscow. But as Russian protesters demonstrated this weekend, when they formed a ten-mile long human chain around the Moscow center, the city is no longer his.
By themselves, such symbolic gestures will do little to prevent Putin’s all-but-certain victory this weekend. But for the first time during Putin’s one-man rule, the now-familiar gimmick of a pre-election assassination plot cannot detract from the Russian public’s growing desire for a time when Putin’s days truly will be numbered.
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