A respected Russian-language business newspaper is reporting a 12-percent drop in President Vladimir Putin's popularity in cities with more than 1 million inhabitants between mid-January and mid-February.
Moscow-based Vedomosti, which was once a joint venture between Dow Jones, the Financial Times and the publishers of The Moscow Times, based its report on a survey issued by the state-run Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM).
According to VTsIOM, Putin's popularity fell from almost 70 percent to slightly above 57 percent in large and mid-size Russian cities whose populations cumulatively represent roughly one quarter of the electorate.
Valery Fyodorov, director of VTsIOM, was quick to deny the legitimacy of the survey findings his organization published in late February, which revealed the dip in Putin's popularity.
A VTsIOM follow-up survey conducted from March 2-4, Fyodorov said, showed Putin's 12-percent plunge was an "insignificant and temporary decrease."
"On January 10, Putin's popularity rose to almost 70 percent, and on February 18, it fell to 57.1 percent," he said. "Now [Putin], in Moscow and St. Petersburg, has an approval rating of 63 percent."
According to Meduza, a Latvia-based Russian language news outlet, "polls show the same trend" of a 12-percent drop "in cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 people."
"Putin's candidate rating has remained stable only in cities with populations between 500,000 and 950,000 people, and in smaller towns and villages," the Meduza report says, adding that VTsIOM also shows an increasing number of undecided voters and people who endorse Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party's candidate, in large cities.
Competing 'with himself'
In some independent Russian media such as Znak.com, where election 2018 is often called the "re-election of Vladimir Putin," Kremlin officials are already preparing a rally and concert in Putin's honor on March 18 or 19, when preliminary results of the vote will be announced.
Political scientist Nikolai Petrov of Moscow's National Research University Higher School of Economics (NRUHSE) says although uneven voter turnout in cities and rural areas may not affect the outcome of the election, severe irregularities would be bad for Putin's political legacy.
"In this sense, the Kremlin is in a difficult situation," he told VOA's Russian Service. "Because the last thing he wants is either a too wide a gap or too low a voter turnout in [Moscow or St. Petersburg], where it is very difficult for him to ensure high turnout.
"Putin is competing not with other presidential candidates, but with himself," Petrov added, explaining that the aging Russian leader's last re-election bid was met with massive streets protests in major cities. In this sense, he said, "he must not lose in a significant way in this internal, mental competition" to secure his long-term political and populist legitimacy.
According to NRUHSE social scientist Alexander Kynev, Putin and those tasked with ensuring his re-election walk a fine line when it comes to presenting research about his popular appeal. Excessively high popularity ratings for Putin, he said, risks giving his support base the impression that there is no need to bother going out to the polls.
"In this sense, it may be better to preserve the intrigue and induce the voter, regardless of the fact that the result looks predetermined, to come out and vote on March 18," Kynev said.
The Kremlin's preference for a high voter turnout to give a Putin re-election the appearance of democratic legitimacy has been widely reported in international media.
This story originated in VOA's Russian Service.