Vladimir Putin will be president, says 30-year-old Yelena.
The lifelong Muscovite is chatting to a friend in Alexander Gardens next to the Kremlin in Moscow. Yelena, who like many Russians won’t give her last name when discussing politics, says she’s not even sure she will vote.
“Everything’s been decided,” she says in Russian. “It will be the same no matter who we vote for.”
It’s election season in Russia, with votes due for parliament in December and president next March. Everyone knows who will win, however, and voters are not energized by the campaign.
Yelena’s complaint is common, despite official boasts that the whole political spectrum is represented on the ballot — from the Communists through the ruling United Russia party to the nationalist Liberal Democrats.
The problem is that many Russians believe the process is an elaborate puppet show with the Kremlin pulling the strings.
Even opposition parties are not really independent, critics say, and newer parties are simply Kremlin creations.
Four years ago, the left-leaning A Just Russia party entered parliament with a strong showing; this year its leader has been cast out by the Kremlin. The economically liberal Right Cause party was expected to do well in the coming election — not any more. Its leader, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov, was voted out at September’s party convention. He blamed the Kremlin for his ouster. Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center says candidates get on the ballot only with Kremlin approval.
“The Kremlin looks like a chef, which controls all dishes, and he will be happy if any of these dishes will be ordered,” he says, “but the problem is that the whole restaurant is becoming less and less popular.”
That isn’t to say Putin isn’t popular; he is. Experts agree he would be elected president even in a totally open election.
Back in Alexander Gardens, Tatiana Kozlova says she will vote for him.
“I will go to the elections, because I’m not ashamed to vote for the current government and for the president,” she says in Russian.
Putin remains hugely popular, but his United Russia party is a different matter. It’s been called “the party of crooks and thieves,” and that tag has caught on, at least in big cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Pavel Danilin edits a political website and is an adviser to United Russia. He says the lack of credible opposition parties means United Russia has to be all things to all people, but that is just not possible.
“Some trends, especially in big cities, are worrying us,” he says. “Because young people in big cities, intelligentsia … are against United Russia.”
Danilin says that could mean the ruling party gets less than 50 percent of the vote in some big cities like St. Petersburg. That’s the problem: Anything less than a majority of the vote will be seen as failure.
A video from the Central Election Commission attempts to show why people should trust the election process. Titled “High-Tech Elections,” it explains security procedures and demonstrates how paper ballots will be scanned automatically and deposited into ballot boxes. Opinion polls show a majority of Russians think there will be fraud, however, and it will favor United Russia.
Aside from the Kremlin-encouraged “official opposition,” there are political parties more actively opposed to Putin and United Russia, but they are barred from taking part. Parnas, the People’s Freedom Party, is one. It still wants people to go to the polls, just so they can spoil their ballots. Parnas hopes this will make the election harder to fix and reduce United Russia’s share of the vote.
Anton Yemelin, a young Parnas activist, admits it will be difficult.
“My enemy is not Putin or Medvedev or Yedinaya Rossiya, my enemy is when everybody [doesn't] care,” he says.
The 23-year-old says many of his friends ignore politics. He faces the same problem as the Kremlin-approved parties: convincing Russians to cast votes when they believe nothing will change.