One little-publicized element of acting President Vladimir Putin's electoral campaign has been a public complaint center, where prospective voters' requests for help are considered. This week, as Sunday's presidential election was drawing nearer, RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent visited the center.
Moscow, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The public complaint center set up by acting President Vladimir Putin has received some 9,000 requests for help since it opened a month ago. The center occupies two rooms on the second floor of a 19th-century house in central Moscow that has been rebuilt to modern standards. The new elevators, marble floors and glass doors gleam, in stark contrast to the tired, mostly elderly women waiting their turn to speak with one of the 10 counselors.
Some who come to the center write out their complaints in a separate room, but most of them press against the center's main door in order not to lose their place in line. Every 10 minutes, the door opens and the next unhappy Russian slips in, a bundle of papers -- appeals, laws, official decisions -- under her or, occasionally, his arm.
According to the center's deputy director, Stanislav Brusov, most of the complaints are about housing problems and allegedly unfair court decisions. Many petitioners have been battling for years against bureaucracy and corruption, but without much result. Brusov admits the center cannot do much to help: It simply registers complaints and passes them on to the right authorities. Putin's staff are there largely to offer a sympathetic ear.
Like Galina Orestova, many petitioners see in their personal problems the reflection of a chaotic and corrupt state where the individual is practically helpless. Orestova told RFE/RL that termites have been slowly destroying her home over the past 10 years:
"They destroy wool, fake fur, natural fur, they eat the furniture -- and this white [liquid], like white paint, that's their spittle, it covers and ruins everything that's in the house. Everything is full of holes. Now I collect [the insects] on the window sill, on the floor. They even fly around the apartment. I discovered these insects in 1990, and since then, I haven't been able to get anything done about it."
Orestova wants Putin to force the city of Moscow to implement a court decision to assign her another apartment. Although, she calls herself "a real communist," she says she will vote for Putin and not for the leftist candidate Gennady Zyuganov.
"Of course I'm going to go vote. Im going to vote for Putin. Because he's so strict. And we need someone strict to make some order here. Whether Putin or Zyuganov, they have the same policy. I don't know but, well, Zyuganov he's [too] soft, like he's weak-willed. And here we need someone more... I didn't hear how Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin spoke on the radio, or on TV. I didn't hear Zyuganov. But I'm a person with a [sensitive] soul. I can feel that [Putin] is for the people."
Andronnik Tonayan, an elderly Armenian who has been living in Moscow for 30 years, also came to the center with a legal problem. He sees in Putin a Russian version of former French president Charles de Gaulle and a strong defender of the rule of law:
"For five years, I've been trying [to get help]. There's no authority, no justice, no truth -- all our legal organs are a complete mess. So I decided to speak to our boss Putin, who will be to Russia what de Gaulle was to France -- I think so. I mean the way he knows his business, I mean his youth."
Another center visitor was Lyudmila Petrovna, a handsome, 50-year-old metro-train conductor. No one would be able to tell from her smart fur hat and perfectly cut coat that she's been living for 10 years in a hovel, where she says her husband caught tuberculosis.
"The court made a positive decision [in our favor], but there's been no result. For the past 10 years, we've been in an apartment that was officially certified as unfit for residence. The floorboards have collapsed, there's no gas. Imagine living like this for 10 years when you're working in the metro, responsible for human lives and you live in such conditions."
A few days ago, Lyudmila Petrovna said, she decided that this time she would vote not for pro-democracy candidate Grigory Yavlinsky but for Putin.
"If Putin can't help me and I stay to rot as the last person living in this apartment, I will stop believing in this country. [I] will try to go to some foreign country."
The only visitor to the center who mentioned the war in Chechnya was Lyudmila Ivanovna , the mother of six children. Her entire family lives in 40 square meters and can't get a bigger apartment. She says she will vote for Putin even though she has some misgivings about what she calls his "harsh methods."
"[Putin is] quite energetic. It seems to me that he can help somehow. If he doesn't go to extremes, there will be stabilization after all. But since I have sons, four little boys, I'm scared for their future -- because of the war [in Chechnya]."
Another petitioner at Putin's center is the aging Tamara Los, who likes to recall the euphoric first years of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s. Los founded one of many small democratic movements during that period, and later stood up for Boris Yeltsin in front of Russia's White House during the failed August 1991 coup d'etat. Today, she barely survives on the government's standard monthly pension of less than 30 dollars (about 700 rubles). She says:
"I [once] believed that the system should be changed, that there had to be a market economy. I became an active democrat, I even ran for a seat in the Moscow city council. I spent three nights and four days at the White House [in 1991]. But now I'm like everyone else -- 700 rubles [pension a month]. At the end of the month, I'm always hungry. I fast because I have to. I try to calm down by telling myself that now [it is Lent] and you have to fast."
Larissa Glebkova, a boisterous woman pensioner, loudly complained about the high rent and municipal taxes that leave her with 300 rubles a month to live on:
"Why should we pay for garbage [collection]? What garbage do we have with 300 rubles? How do we set aside the garbage [money] given what we have to pay for? We can't afford to buy milk, right?"
Glebkova suggested that Putin should be given conditional votes. Her idea was this: If Putin doesn't fulfill his promises, people should simply take back their votes and dismiss the president.