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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Kicks Off 4th Year With United Russia

APPresident Vladimir Putin speaking to leaders of the United Russia party in the Kremlin on Wednesday.
In what could be seen as a reminder of his political victory three years ago and a preview of another electoral campaign to come, President Vladimir Putin marked the third anniversary of his presidency Wednesday by meeting with the leaders of the United Russia party -- some of whom were once seen as his political opponents.

Addressing a group of the pro-Kremlin party leaders, including Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who once harbored presidential ambitions, and his comrade in the 1999 parliamentary race, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev, Putin praised the party's "unique organizational and intellectual potential" and urged it to assume a more active role in formulating strategy for Russia's development and not just vie for seats in parliament.

The party leaders, for their part, consulted the president on United Russia's manifesto ahead of its congress Saturday, and were likely to get some additional points for having their meeting with the super-popular president shown on the evening news.

"We are a party created not for the elections, but for improving the country's living standards," Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who heads the party's higher council, said, reflecting Putin's urgings.

Gone are the times when political commentators speculated about Luzhkov's imminent demise after Putin's election or the president's clampdown on regional barons such as Shaimiyev, who can now run for his post for a third and even fourth time.

Commentators were nearly unanimous Wednesday in their opinion that during his first three years in power, Putin has avoided rocking the boat and by far has preferred stability. This has been reflected in his stable and consistently high ratings.

According to one of Russia's leading polling firms, VTsIOM, Putin's approval ratings are at least as high this month, at 74 percent, as they were in the months after he won the presidency, 70 percent. The polls have a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

Only 6 percent of Russians who voted for Putin in 2000 regret their choice, while 82 percent said they made the right choice, according to another pollster, ARPI, Interfax reported Wednesday.

Some other indicators, however, paint a less rosy picture.

Three years ago, Putin was seen as a president of hope, who would bring order to the country, improve its economy and suppress the Chechnya rebellion. But of the 1,600 Russians VTsIOM polled March 21-24, 65 percent said Putin had had little success in securing economic growth, and roughly the same percentage judged his Chechnya policies a failure.

Political analysts said the president's sky-high approval ratings say little about the real situation in the country and may even be perceived as a sign of stagnation.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Putin's approval ratings are due to the favorable economic situation, which has little relation to what Putin actually has done, as well as to political stability and well-tuned image-making, in which Putin works hard to appeal to every audience he is talking to.

"He managed to disconnect his personal image and the concrete economic situation that people see around," Petrov said in a telephone interview.

"Moreover, he has become hostage to his high ratings, which impede decisive steps, because if, as a result of some unpopular policy it drops to a normal level of say 50 percent, it would be perceived as a catastrophic fall."

Yuri Korgunyuk of the INDEM political think tank said that approval ratings should be viewed with caution. He disagreed with a widespread expectation that Putin will not risk radical steps until the elections but would launch them in his second term.

"Reforms are stalled not because he is afraid of the elections, but because of a strong resistance from his support base -- bureaucrats and the mass of state employees," Korgunyuk said. "None of them wants any changes and all of them are asking for money. Putin has done some things but has a lot more to do."