I spent election day far away from the action, from Western correspondents and, it seemed to me, from any signs of falsification. I was in Pindushi, a dilapidated town of 3000 or so 3 hours by road from Petrozavodsk. The town’s population have plenty of reasons to feel disillusioned by the political process - the main employer, a shipyard, stopped working a decade ago, leaving half the town redundant; investment is nowhere to be seen - many buildings look very tired; the roads, of course, are full of holes; the public heating system is faulty, so temperatures indoors often struggle to get above 10 degrees in mid winter.
However, I didn’t see many signs of disillusionment on their faces as they bustled into the Dom Kultura (Culture House) and cast their votes. The voting room itself looked a lot like the one I voted in last year in London and the process was the same. Voters arrived, showed their personal ID, signed against their name on a list, took a voting form into a little booth, placed their cross, put the form in a box and went on their way.
At least the majority, probably the vast majority, voted for Putin. If we are to believe the middle class, facebook-using leaders of the opposition movement, they did so because they are Putin-voting robots, programmed by daily doses of propaganda from state controlled television. This is partly true - these people do watch state TV and state TV is biased. However, it is also an oversimplification which is, I think, disrespectful. It assumes that most people who vote for Putin only do so because they can’t think for themselves. Actually, plenty of people, even in Pindushi, have good reasons to vote Putin.
First and foremost they are satisfied with what has been achieved in the last 12 years. Most importantly, pensions and wages are now higher and paid on time. Corruption is a less visible problem (the police don’t demand petty bribes like they used to). Chechnya, which used to be plagued by terrorists posing as freedom fighters (or at least, that’s the Russian perspective) is now fully under state control. Russia is taken more seriously on the world stage. In general, Russia is stronger, safer, more stable, more prosperous and more independent than it was when Putin came to power. Many people give Putin credit for this. They are right to do so.
Secondly Pindushi’s voters are afraid of change. Most voters remember what happened the last time Russia experienced a change of government. They endured years of real poverty. They can remember being literally penniless. Understandably, they don’t want to risk it happening again. And, considering the calibre of the opposition candidates, there’s no guarantee that change wouldn’t have made things worse.
It is important to weigh these arguments against the plentiful arguments against Putin: The continued imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is an ever present reminder of Putin’s ruthlessness in dealing with those who oppose him too openly. The ‘little people’ who are too vociferous in their opposition (including an acquaintance at university) continue to be intimidated by police. Their are serious issues surrounding the fairness and openness of elections. He is the director of a system which sanctions and maybe even depends on large scale corruption. Putin’s insuperable and not always well-founded suspicion of the West makes him very difficult to deal with. Reasons enough to vote against him in spite of the weakness of the opposition candidates, which many did.
Presented with both sides of the argument, it becomes clear that Russian politics isn’t the black and white battle between good (the opposition) and evil (Putin) often presented in the Western media. There are convincing arguments on both sides, and opposition candidates have been on state TV every day for the last month criticizing the government and offering an alternative. The odds may have been stacked against them from the start, and that is a problem, but they had an opportunity. Their voice was heard (quietly) and the majority weren’t convinced.
When we came out of the polling station today the old man in the tracksuit was just arriving. It had taken him 10 minutes to shuffle 100 metres. Today, Russia, like this man, chose to keep inching forwards. Despite its many problems, it is determined to shuffle on one painful step at a time. It will do it at its own pace. It doesn’t want any help from healthier do-gooders. But, like the old man, it will get there in the end.