Voting was underway in Russia's nationwide elections for the State Duma yesterday. While polling stations in the Far East were already closed, others remained open for several more hours, with the last closing in Russia's far-Western outpost of Kaliningrad. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini sent this report.
Moscow, 20 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's elections finally gave Russians a respite from the mud-slinging between pro-government media and media supportive of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. While the effect of such propaganda is difficult to evaluate, election results will show whether the Kremlin's tactics have attained their main aim -- to weaken Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov's "Fatherland-All Russia" bloc and strengthen "Unity", a party created by the government only in September.
Opinion polls indicate that Russia's leadership indeed managed to do just that. Unity -- which boasts it doesn't have a real program -- has clearly benefited from the popularity of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has given the party his support.
But polls also indicate Unity will run behind the Communist Party, which is expected to again win the largest bloc of seats in the Duma with about 20 to 30 percent of the vote.
Behind the Communists, Unity and the "Fatherland-All Russia" bloc, several other parties are hoping to clear the five percent barrier and win party list seats. The Yabloko Party of Grigory Yavlinsky -- a Kremlin opponent and reformer -- is expected to place fourth with about seven per cent of the votes.
According to polls, both Vladimir Zhirinovsky's bloc and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, are hovering around the five per cent barrier.
But an exit poll done by the Effective Policy Fund, directed by political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, shows unexpectedly high support for the SPS. However, the poll's trustworthiness is difficult to evaluate.
The SPS is led by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, and supported by former privatization chief Anatoly Chubais and one of Russia's free market architects, Yegor Gaidar.
During the last days of the campaign, the group heavily played up its support of Vladimir Putin, in an apparent attempt to tap the Prime Minister's popularity.
Outside polling station number 119 in Central Moscow, a mother and daughter -- obviously well-to-do in mink-coats -- told RFE/RL that they supported the SPS in the Duma vote. They said they did so even though they had also voted for Luzhkov in his bid for re-election as mayor in a race against the SPS's Kiriyenko.
The daughter explains her support for the SPS in the Duma vote:
"I voted for the Union of Right Forces because they're young. They stand for the future. They're talented people, not only young, but also smart." The mother then explained that the reasons for her vote were more complex.
"I voted for the Union of Right Forces because although I'm in favor of Fatherland-All Russia, I'm sure they'll get into [the Duma] anyway [without my vote]. But the Right Forces might not get five percent. And that's why [I'm voting for them] -- so people like [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky don't get into the Duma.
Despite the fighting for votes among pro-government parties, reformists and others, today's voting will likely demonstrate the continuing strength of the Communist Party.
Central Electoral Committee director Alexander Veshnyakov said yesterday that voter turnout is expected to be around 60 per cent. But a study by the Russian Independent Institute of Social and National Studies published last week by Russian daily Niezavismaya Gazeta, indicated that the proportion of those who will vote varies widely according to age and political inclination. According to the study fewer than 50 per cent of people under 30 -- those most likely to back reformists -- will vote. The survey also showed that the communists have the highest proportion of active voters.
While still led by Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party has been presenting a more moderate economic program than in previous campaigns. It now advocates renationalization only of what it considers illegally privatized businesses. It also stresses support of national industry, an increased federal budget and social security. And they have a solid electoral base among the many who have suffered under economic reforms.
RFE/RL spoke with Lidia Galtsova, a convinced communist, after she voted in polling station number 1797, in the village of Zhukovka some 12 kilometers from Moscow. She says that she was voting for the communists less out of nostalgia for the past than in order to assure a strong opposition in the Duma to counter what she calls the harsh economic and social measures advocated by the Kremlin.
In Zhukovka, social inequalities are especially striking. Traditionally the country-home of the Soviet nomenklatura, it is now favored by government officials and businessmen. Five-story imitation gothic castles constructed out of red brick stand next to old wooden houses sinking into the ground. Bullet-proof stretch limousines pass babushkas tending to their goats.
Galtsova, who is a retired teacher, says she supported the newly acquired freedoms but in her mind the communist were the strongest defenders of those who will always be poor whatever the system.
"I'm a communist since 1951. And I never changed my opinion. For the rich life got better -- they built themselves villas. And those who didn't have anything before, don't have anything now. I understand that there can't be a return to the Soviet Union and even the communists aren't the same. That's natural [evolution]. But of course this blow against the elderly must be softened [by a communist opposition]. How can things become better for me. I have two higher teaching diplomas and work as a cleaning lady."
As for Fatherland-All Russia, it has lost considerable ground since earlier in the year. But experts foresee a high turn-out in favor of "Fatherland-All Russia" by Muscovites who are expected to stay faithful to their mayor. They are also expected to re-elect him easily to his post.