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Russia's Putin standing falls in poll

MOSCOW, May 19 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval rating slipped below 50 percent in an opinion poll released after last Friday's state-of-the-nation address.

The Public Opinion Foundation asked 1,500 people in a nationwide poll to name their choice for president if elections were today, and 49 percent said they would vote for Putin.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was backed by 15 percent, while ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was supported by 3 percent of those polled.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, received 2 percent, while another liberal politician, Union of Rightist Forces' Boris Nemtsov, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov each got 1 percent.

The results of the poll have prompted some analysts to voice concerns that Putin may not win next year's presidential election outright.

In March 2000, Putin -- hand-picked and endorsed by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in Dec. 31, 1999 -- received nearly 53 percent of the vote, avoiding a run-off against Zyuganov.

Since then, his approval rating had jumped to 86 percent before falling back as the country remains mired in the bloody conflict in separatist Chechnya and economic reforms stall amid a jump in inflation.

Gennady Raikov, a nationalist politician who strongly supports Putin, told Ekho Moskvy radio the results of the poll were an unfortunate misunderstanding, assuring listeners that Putin's support in the regions remained very strong. Other opinion polls have shown the population's satisfaction level with Putin hovering around 80 percent, in part because of the positive spin the Kremlin consistently gets from virtually all national television networks.

But another poll of 300 Muscovites conducted by the Media Research Center of Radio and Television indicated the dangers of presidential over-exposure in the media, with 49 percent saying Putin was the politician who most irritated them with frequent broadcasts of his statements.

State-owned television networks frequently devote large parts of their news bulletins to the president's activities, at times overshadowing major news events.

Meanwhile, some analysts latched onto the president's admission in his state-of-the-nation address that economic growth and reforms were lagging, going so far as to suggest that Putin's three years in office could be seen as a time of missed opportunities.

Putin's critics point out that record revenues from oil exports failed to kick-start investment in industry, as the government appears more concerned with paying off international debt, starving many sectors of much-needed investment.

Russia's economy remains tied to exports of non-replaceable commodities such as oil and natural gas, profits from which have exceeded projections in large part due to high world prices.

Despite the lower than expected poll figure, Putin is assured of a second presidential term based on his current performance.

Putin's closest political rival, Zyuganov, has consistently failed to break through the 15-percent support ceiling, though his party expects to pick up 25 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections this December.

With campaigning not yet under way, Putin's support levels are expected to remain stable for a few months, but will more likely rise than fall as election day approaches.

The margin of the poll was plus or minus 3.6 percent.

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