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Why September could deliver a 'reality check' for Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin's popularity ratings remain high but the leader of one of Russia's opposition parties told CNBC that the president could see the strength of his leadership and United Russia party tested in parliamentary elections in September.

"I think most people in the West have been blinded by these headlines that Putin enjoys over 80 percent support of Russians as I think there's much more to it than meets the eye," Vladimir Milov, leader of the Democratic Choice of Russia, a party seen as a liberal alternative to the current government led by Putin's United Russia party.

"Personal support for the president is there but many Russians are not happy with the system, with domestic economic policies and I think we're going to have a test of that in September with the parliamentary elections which me and my colleagues will use as an important step for returning Russia to democracy," he told CNBC Europe's "Squawk Box" on Friday.


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"Realistically, you've got to expect Putin to stay in power and remain in control for quite some time ahead but importantly we're moving in a very unpredictable trajectory and I think the September parliamentary elections will be a reality check: Do Russians really support this system and monopoly of the ruling party which has exited over many years or do they want some change and transformation, despite the fact that Putin will probably stay in power?."

There have been various coalitions of like-minded opposition parties in Russia over recent years that have tried to challenge the dominance of Putin's United Russia party but several have disintegrated.

In the meantime, Putin, a leader who has cultivated a tough-guy and almost paternal role in Russia, has seen his popularity ratings remain stubbornly high. According to polling by the independent Levada Center, 82 percent of Russians surveyed approved of Putin's activities as president, continuing a trend seen throughout his time in office.

Russia's economy has been through a turbulent few years, however, with international sanctions imposed on it for its annexation of Crimea and role in the pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine –albeit largely popular acts at a domestic level – damaging the country's reputation and trade with much of the world.

The sharp drop in oil prices has also seen the major oil and gas exporter unable to rely on those commodities for much of its government revenues and poverty in Russia has risen, all factors that could tarnish Putin's popularity.

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Milov said that, alone, the Democrats did not have a chance to challenge Putin but he said he thought there was a fair chance that United Russia could lose its parliamentary majority in September for the first time in 13 years.

"A rubber-stamp parliament was a very important part of Putin's power in Russia and I think we can change that together with other different forces and the Democrats will play a part in this."

Being an opposition politician in Russia is not for the faint-hearted. Last year, a key opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. Milov said he did not feel safe but felt a duty to stay in the country.

"We don't feel safe but we prefer not to talk about our personal safety. It is the Kremlin's ultimate goal, it was the goal of Nemtsov's murder, to scare us off and to make us run away, to make us emigrate, but we're not doing that, we're staying in Russia no matter what the risks are," he said.

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