VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, AP
MOSCOW (AP) — With a year to go before Russia's presidential election, there's little room for intrigue. President Vladimir Putin is set to glide easily to another term against a familiar pack of torpid rivals — leftovers from past races.
But the Kremlin must figure out how to overcome one major problem in Russia's political environment: public apathy.
Putin's strategists are searching for ways to draw more people to the polls in March 2018 to make his expected victory as impressive as possible.
"The Kremlin is trying to encourage people, various population groups, to turn out for vote," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political consultant for the Kremlin. "It's a nervous moment for both Putin and his entourage."
The date of the vote hasn't been officially set, but pro-Kremlin lawmakers have proposed March 18, the day in 2014 when Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula officially was declared part of Russia in a move that bolstered Putin's popularity.
Putin, whose approval ratings have topped 80 percent despite a two-year recession, has refrained so far from declaring his intention to seek another six-year term. It's a familiar course for the Russian leader, who prefers to enter the race at the last moment.
The Kremlin's goal, according to the Russian media, is for Putin to poll 70 percent of the vote with a turnout of 70 percent of the electorate — a result that would represent a majority of the population and prove that his popularity hasn't withered during his long rule.
It's an ambitious task. Putin polled 64 percent in 2012, with 65 percent of voters casting their ballots, but last fall's parliamentary elections attracted fewer than 48 percent of voters.
The lack of competition has progressively drained public interest in politics, and the lineup of presidential contenders for 2018 can hardly cause any excitement.
Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center, a leading independent pollster, said his organization's polls indicate that Putin could easily win 65 percent of the vote, but that authorities would need other tactics to achieve the 70 percent mark.
In 2012, Putin mobilized his support base with anti-U.S. rhetoric. Now, however, he is hoping for a rapprochement with Washington, although such expectations are looking dim amid congressional scrutiny of links between President Donald Trump's aides and Russia.
Gudkov said the Russian public has grown tired of tensions with the West and expects Putin to negotiate a new detente.
"A long and dangerous confrontation caused strong public fear of a big war," he said, adding that Trump's victory eased those fears and softened a negative public perception of the U.S.
Putin is still riding the wave of patriotic fervor fueled by the annexation of Crimea, Gudkov said, and most Russians still see him as irreplaceable despite brewing discontent over the economy and official corruption.
"There are no other real candidates. The political field has been burned out," Gudkov said.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky have signaled they intend to run. All luckless veterans of many races since the 1990s, they can be expected to campaign in the same stolid, predictable way.