December 3, 2007
Crossing the Volga
Tver Happy to Vote for United Russia
By Graham Stack
TVER/ Eighty miles to the north of Moscow where the mighty Volga River has its source, the small provincial capital of Tver (pop. 400,000) is in a festive mood - not because of the parliamentary elections - there is hardly a sign barring the odd poster - but rather because of the rapidly approaching holiday season. The trees lining the city's historical heart are drapwed with sparkling light strings, and New Year's trees stand proudly in the central square.
But these decorations are not free of politics: in Tver, people went to the polls on Dec. 2 not only to vote for the State Duma, but also for the city's mayor, and the impressive early installation of street decorations will hopefully boost the voters' opinion of the incumbent, United Russia's Oleg Lebedev.
The double election taking place in Tver also means that a high turnout was expected here, and this seems to have been the case. Almost everyone on the streets of Tver on Sunday afternoon said they had already voted or intended to vote. And most said they voted for the United Russia party, whose electoral list is topped by President Vladimir Putin.
"Putin, of course"
"He's done a lot for the country," says Sergei, 55, a pensioner, who was hurrying with his wife to the polling station. "He doesn't talk like all the others. Anyone can talk. He gets things done. I like his politics." Asked if he would vote in the presidential elections for any candidate backed by Putin, Sergei shook his head in the negative. "But I would vote for what's his name, the prime minister, Zubkov, as president. He's experienced, knows what he's doing, won't make mistakes. He's not that old that his mind's going weak or anything."
Svetlana, fashionably dressed, in her twenties, said that she voted for "United Russia, of course," as she hurried by.
Sasha, who is starting university and Dasha, who works in a call center for retail consumer credit, both 18, voted for the first time. But when asked for whom, they say, presumably diplomatically, "We've forgotten."
Alexandra, 30, an accountant, said she intended to vote "against all." When informed that the "against all" option has been abolished, she laughed and said, "Well then, I suppose, United Russia."
"Stability" is the most frequent response from those who voted or intend to vote for United Russia. "We need stability," said Vyacheslav, a typesetter, "for the time being." Asked if he would vote for Putin at the coming presidential elections, he said "Yes, if he runs, but I doubt he will. Otherwise I'll vote for whoever's going to carry on from him."
Dmitry, 27, sporting an earring, said he is for "Putin, of course. There's just no one better at the moment."
Another Dmitry, who graduated from university with a degree in engineering two years ago, says he is more concerned about local politics, and voted primarily for the incumbent mayor, Oleg Lebedev to be reelected. "He brought order into the town." Although now a United Russia member, Lebedev is facing strong opposition, who accused him of flirting with pro-Western liberal politicians such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was allowed to hold an electoral meeting in Tver.
But not necessarily United Russia
High over the Volga on a winter afternoon, people simply seemed happy to have the chance to vote for Putin one last time. But not all those who are in favor of Putin intend to vote for United Russia. "If everyone votes for United Russia, we'll just end up with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union again," said Valentina Ivanova, a pensioner. "The country needs different opinions. I'm a pensioner, so I voted for the pensioners' party," meaning the Just Russia party, a pro-Putin left-leaning populist block led by Putin ally Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council.
Yet another Dmitry, a 30-year old teacher, is undecided about whether to vote for United Russia or a left-wing party such as Just Russia or the Communists. "I'm going now to meet my wife, and we'll decide together who to vote for. You see, we have a 10-month-old son. Inflation is terrible at the moment. Food's getting very expensive. And this is the government's fault."
The surge in consumer price inflation which started in September is an issue that is already causing some to have their doubts about the country's political direction - opinion polls show it shaving six percent off United Russia's popularity rating, taking away the exact number of percentage points the party gained when Putin announced he would top its electoral list. Food price inflation is even higher than statistically recorded inflation, and it hits the poorest Russians hardest, since they spend more proportionally on food products.
"I don't like United Russia," said Vadim, a well-groomed 32-year-old in an expensive-looking leather jacket, who said he is a doctor. "I like Putin. But United Russia doesn't do anything, they just make a lot of noise. I'll vote for the Communist Party, or Just Russia. United Russia doesn't do enough for the people."
A stocky man in his fifties who declined to give his name, said he was not going to vote. "What's the point? It's all been decided. I don't want anything from them, and they don't want anything from me."
Sergei, a 35-year old driver, poorly dressed and laden with two bags full of vegetables from the market, seems at first glance like a stereotypical voter for the Communists or nationalists. "I voted SPS," he stated surprisingly, referring to the pro-Western, liberal Union of Right Forces party closely associated with the privatizations of the 1990s, and which received only 3 percent of the vote in 2004. "Because they had the most mud thrown at them and the most harassment. Everyone's talking about it in Moscow. Nemtsov is OK, what did they need to arrest him for?" Boris Nemtsov, the still-youthful Yeltsin-era governor and deputy prime minister who led the SPS electoral list, was detained in St. Petersburg last week after a demonstration by the umbrella opposition movement The Other Russia.
"Moscow construction companies are all coming here and taking over the market," Sergei complains. "But what do we ever get to build in Moscow?"
Although turnout specifically for the city of Tver was not reported, 57.5 percent of residents of the Tver Region cast a ballot on Sunday. United Russia won by a landslide in the region, but the party's numbers in the region were slightly less than its numbers nationwide. In Tver, United Russia won 59.7 percent of the vote, compared with 64 percent across Russia. The Communists claimed 13.4 percent, while the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) garnered 9.7 percent and Just Russia won 8.4 percent.
Mayor Oleg Lebedev was easily reelected with 70 percent of the vote; his closest competitor, Sergei Rogozin, a regional Duma deputy and engineer who ran under the banner of the Communist Party, won only 15.5 percent.