RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin looks set to claim victory in the country's parliamentary elections last weekend.
Putin's United Russia party and its smaller allies are likely to win a clear majority in the Duma, Russia's parliament. They even hope to reach the two thirds majority which would allow Putin to amend the constitution and allow him to stay in office longer than current rules allow. United Russia has few policies other than to back Putin as a 'strongman' ruler. It even used pictures of the dictator of the old USSR Joseph Stalin in its campaign.
In the election campaign itself Putin used his control over the media to ensure blanket coverage and support for those backing him, and attacks on all those who opposed him.
The election was marked by a high number of abstentions. This deep disaffection with official politics is a far cry from the euphoria and promises made in the early 1990s when the old USSR collapsed. People were told that the failure of the old state-run economy and society of the USSR would give way to a vibrant democracy and prosperity brought by market capitalism.
A decade on, a small minority of Russians have grown wealthy, but life for most people has got harder. A few 'oligarchs', many of who held key positions under the old USSR regime, grew fabulously wealthy as they seized former state industries and created vast personal empires. The best known of these gangster-capitalists in Britain is Roman Abramovich, the man who bought Chelsea football club.
Putin played on popular resentment against the oligarchs by arresting one of them, Russia's richest man Mikhail Khodorovksy, in the run-up to the elections. Yet Putin himself has close links with the oligarchs, and several top businessmen numbered among the candidates for his United Russia party at the elections.
The reality is that official politics in Russia has become a squabble among a thin layer at the top of society, all linked into gangster- style capitalism.
Meanwhile life for most people has got worse. Even official statistics, which observers believe vastly underestimate poverty, say some 39 million Russians live below the official poverty line of $57 a month. The gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider. Life expectancy, a basic measure of living standards, has fallen at a pace rarely seen in any major society outside wartime.
Life expectancy for Russian men is now officially less than 59 years, down from 65 since 1987. An official report by the State Duma Health Committee points out why: 'The basis for the unprecedented growth of early mortality in Russia is the result of the worsened quality of life for the majority of the population. It is the result of a lingering social and economic crisis, characterised by the rise in unemployment, chronic delays in paying salaries, pensions and social aid, worsening nutrition, and a decrease in access to medical care and medicines.'
Putin has played on this despair to present himself and his increasingly authoritarian rule as the way out of the crisis. Part of this approach has been to build up a new Russian imperialism, the idea that a powerful Russia able to impose its will beyond its borders will bring improvements in people's lives at home.
The bloodiest result of this has been the four-year war and occupation in Chechnya, which has devastated the small republic on Russia's southern borders and killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Putin's election success shows he has, for now, persuaded many Russians that his authoritarian rule is their best hope. That support is unlikely to survive if people's lives do not improve. And already it is clear that millions of Russians are deeply disillusioned with all official politics.
Twelve years ago Maria and Dmitry Kotov were on the Moscow streets supporting the revolt which defeated an attempted coup and heralded the end of the USSR. 'We were very politicised then,' said Maria. 'We argued with our friends about politics until dawn. But today politics have no bearing on my life.'
As so often in other countries this does not mean a lack of concern about the issues that matter.
'What I really care about is health and education, but none of the parties have talked about it in their campaigns so I voted against everyone.' Her husband Dmitry agreed: 'Whoever wins, our life is not going to be changed for the better'.