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February 27, 2012

Critics Say Putin Assassination Plot Tied to Sunday Vote

by James Brooke

Less than one week before Russia's presidential election, voters are digesting an announcement that police uncovered a plot to kill the main candidate, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. 

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has brushed off a reported assassination plot, telling reporters: “People in my position have to live with it.  It would be impossible to carry on if you fear that.  Let them fear us.”

A Kremlin-controlled network, Russia’s Channel One, reported Monday three men from Russia’s violence plagued Chechnya region met two months ago in Odessa, Ukraine and plotted to attack a Putin motorcade in Moscow.

The plot unraveled January 4 when a bomb they were making accidentally exploded in Odessa, killing one man and wounding another.  Channel One televised taped confessions made by the wounded man and the third man. 

The report also announced details of two other previously unknown plots on Putin’s life, both in Russia’s violence plagued Caucasus southern border region.

In Moscow, analysts and opposition politicians questioned the timing of the announcement - eight weeks after the Odessa bomb explosion and one week before Russia’s Presidential election.

“Few people are taking this seriously.  Rather than condemning a crass attempt to boost Putin’s popularity, people are making fun of it,”  noted Masha Lipman, Moscow Carnegie Center.

In a candidates' debate, Gennady Zyuganov, of the Communist Party, called the announcement “a cheap trick that stinks.”

Vladimir Zhironovsky, a nationalist, who is running for president for the fifth time since 1991, called the plot a “hoax” cooked up “to stir sympathy among less-educated people.” The veteran campaigner added: “Grandmothers, old women, will say, ‘Oh dear, they wanted to murder him, so let us vote for him.”

Political commentator Oleg Kashin asked on Kommersant FM radio whether it is possible such a sensational story can appear on a Kremlin-controlled channel without the approval of Putin’s PR people.

In response, the prime minister’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said linking the plot announcement to the elections is “blasphemous.”

Masha Lipman says she sees the assassination plot announcement as part of a larger campaign to turn around Putin’s slumping popularity.  She said this effort has been effective. “Quite effective, because Putin’s popularity seems to be rising in the last weeks leading to his election.”

In a nationwide poll taken last weekend, 60 percent of respondents said they would vote for the prime minister.  If Putin wins more than 50 percent of votes cast on Sunday, he will not have to go through a second, runoff round.