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Lessons in popularity from Russia's Putin

President Putin could write a handbook on "popularity for dummies," as his ratings continue to rise. In Moscow, Fiona Clark looks at how he's using textbook moves to win the hearts and minds of the Russian public.

Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, might be the sexiest politician alive at the moment, but if you're asking the mirror on the wall who's the most popular, on home ground at least, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be the clear winner.

According to a poll by Russia's state-owned VTsIOM research center, Putin's popularity is now almost 90 percent. Yes, you read that right - almost NINETY percent.

"Vladimir Putin's approval rating has set a new record at 89.9 percent," a press release claimed, exceeding the previous June 2015 maximum of 89.1 percent.

Since the annexation of Crimea, his approval ratings have risen steadily from about 80 percent to today's high. It's baffling in a country where the economy is tanking, inflation is growing by 12 percent and real wages are buying less and less every day. But clearly the art of distraction never fails. In a textbook patriotism-building move the president has managed to find an enemy on home ground and joined a war in a foreign country, Syria, to defeat it.

Foiled threats

As contradictory as that sounds, the common threat is Islamic extremism, and over the past couple of weeks Russian media have made much ado about the security forces and their recent bids to find and foil potentially deadly terrorist threats. A few days ago they announced they had arrested one man and detained about 20 more who were allegedly members of the radical Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to the news agency Interfax, several dozen more Central Asians were under investigation for their involvement with the group.

Russia has outlawed the group, whose aim is to establish a caliphate in countries with large Muslim populations. Russia has more than 20 million Muslims.

A Moscow underground station

Russian media said explosives were found that were meant to be deployed in public transport

A week earlier a raid on a Moscow apartment yielded an explosive device with the equivalent power of five kilograms of TNT and resulted in the arrest of between six to 11 Russian citizens. According to Russia Today, two of the men admitted the bomb was to be used on public transport.

Initial reports of the raid were contradictory and hazy, and residents in the area were surprised that so many people were in a one-bedroom apartment, as they'd never seen anyone come and go. They admitted, however, that they could have come and gone at night.

Skepticism aside, Russia's decision to bomb Syrian terrorists does undoubtedly increase the risk of terrorist attacks at home. And in recent history it's certainly had more than its fair share of bombings and hijackings. Statistics show Russia has had around 3,000 deaths from more than 100 attacks in the past decade.

Boosting nationalism

But it also fuels nationalism, rallying support around the leadership. The same poll shows 47 percent of respondents support Russia's role in fighting IS and backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with airstrikes in Syria. No doubt Assad's surprise trip to Moscow and the subsequent talks with other Middle East leaders will add another point or two as Russians see the balance of power shift away from the US.

A Russian airstrike on Latakia, Syria

Almost half of Russians support the airstrikes

And Russians' view of America has deteriorated significantly. According to the US based Pew Research Center, only 15 percent of Russians have a favorable opinion of the US at the moment, down from 56 percent in 2011.

Leaving home

Strangely enough though, the US claims the number of Russians applying for a green card has jumped by about 100,000 in 2012 to 265,086 this year, while the number of people leaving the motherland has risen from 186,000 in 2013 to 203,600 this year, sparking fears of a brain drain as people look further afield for better pay and a more stable life. So clearly there is a certain group of people who aren't feeling all that comfortable at the moment.

If they continue to leave at such a rate, the next poll may well show the Russian leader with 100 percent support. After that though, there is only one direction it can go.

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