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“We are Team Putin. We are United Russia,” read the backdrop to a gathering organised by the pro-Kremlin party earlier in August. September’s parliamentary elections are edging closer, and the bloc has reached for its trump card.

Vladimir Putin does not officially lead United Russia and usually takes pains to stand apart from the parliamentary fray. But these are not usual times. The regime, tired and under strain, has an eye on the presidential election in 2024. It urgently needs the ruling party to narrow the yawning gap between its unimpressive popularity ratings and the votes required to secure a supermajority in the Duma, crucial for any constitutional tinkering in advance of that vote...

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