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Russians cynical about parliamentary elections

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ZHELEZNODOROZHNY, Russia — In a town where grievances are plentiful and deep, Sunday’s parliamentary elections should have citizens on the rampage, ready to throw the good-for-nothings out with a well-placed vote.

Andrei Krasilnikov, a 58-year-old writer surrounded by books in his tiny study, shakes his head sadly at the folly of such a notion.

“In our country there is no parliamentary life the way it is understood in the civilized world,” he said. “And I say that with the utmost assurance.”

A visit to Zheleznodorozhny (it means “railroad”), a city of 132,000 people just east of Moscow, offers a journey through the psyche of the Vladi­mir Putin-era voter. These voters are expected to allow the United Russia party that supports Putin to stay in control of the state Duma, even while deeply dissatisfied with its leadership.

“We don’t look at elections as an important political event,” Krasilnikov said. “They don’t have any effect.”

Georgy Udaltsov said he’ll vote, although he considers it useless: “We believe it will be falsified.”

He stood outside his drugstore on Proletariat Street earlier this week, enumerating complaints against the local government, which he said is propped up by the authorities in Moscow. The children’s hospital is a disgrace. Kindergartens are neglected. The maternity hospital was torn down to make way for new apartments, which are sprouting up like so many mushrooms in a damp forest. And criminals run the city, selling land on the cheap to the well-connected, who build still more expensive apartments.

“Don’t mention the mayor’s name,” he advised. “He’ll sue you.”

A gray-haired woman navigating the mud and ice-glazed puddles on the sidewalk overheard and stopped to agree and add shameful details. “But why are foreigners interested?” she asked. “Because Russians are too afraid to care,” Udaltsov retorted. She hurried off when questioned about how she’ll vote. “I work for the government,” she said. “That’s how I’ll vote.”

Radislav Fateyev, the 40-year-old chairman of a Russian heritage society, said the mayor has already announced the results: United Russia must get 67 percent of the votes. People are afraid they’ll be fired, he said, so they’ll vote for the party.

“Now what?” he exclaimed, raising his arm. “We can only hope in God.”

Frustrated efforts

In September, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark came to town to visit a Danish firm that runs an insulation factory. Udaltsov and others — most of whom were too frightened to attach their names to the project — had already organized a civic action group called Our City Zheleznodorozhny to fight against corruption and crime.

They had made little progress. Appeals to the president, prime minister, interior minister and chief of the federal investigative committee had gone unanswered. Other complaints were routed back to the local authorities. Udaltsov had been badly beaten three times, ambushed in the evening when he approached his apartment, where the assailants awaited him. Their only way out, they decided, was to try to get a letter to the queen.

“Honest people cannot easily find support and protection within the police and courts of our country,” the letter read, saying that the government was infested with corruption. “For this reason, we are asking for your help.”

They knew a Danish queen could not change their lives, but they hoped she could somehow slip the letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, who, if he only knew, surely would intervene. The day of the visit, they got the letter into the hands of a young woman who said she worked for the Danish Embassy. Later they heard she was an agent with the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Udaltsov, a 55-year-old former military pilot who served in the Chernobyl nuclear cleanup, said millions are being made on the corrupt sale of land. More money is made on extorting protection from businessmen, he said.

“If you want to live,” he said, “you’ll pay.”

‘Criminalization of power’

In the 2007 Duma elections, United Russia won 64.3 percent of the vote, the Communist Party 11.57 percent, the Liberal Democratic Party 8.14 percent and Fair Russia 7.74 percent.

A poll last week by the independent Levada Center predicted that this year United Russia would slip to 53 percent, with the Communist Party rising to 20 percent, the Liberal Democrats at 12 percent and Fair Russia at 9 percent.

People here said that even if United Russia loses some of its Duma seats — it has 315 of the 450 — it won’t matter because the parties are all pretty much alike.

Krasilnikov said the current Duma never generates its own laws but adopts only those submitted by the government or president. How a voter casts a ballot matters little, he said. In 2008, he said, the local mayor, a member of United Russia, won more than 90 percent of the vote. “Everyone understood very well he did not have that kind of support.”

Krasilnikov lives on the edge of town in a community of small houses called Kupavna, along the commuter rail line between the Dawn and 33 Kilometer stops.

Recently, he said, the mayor’s team decided to build themselves houses in the wide pine-dotted median outside his window, where construction is prohibited. “We tore down their fences,” he said, “and we aren’t particularly young.”

Valery Kolesnikov, the 68-year-old chairman of the street committee, said the grandmothers on the street were particularly fierce. They have driven the interlopers away, he said, but they could return any time.

Back in town, Alexander Molokoyedov was on the phone in the Communist Party office, recruiting election observers for Sunday. The party’s first secretary had forbidden him to give an interview, he said — because of trick questions. But soon he gave in to a reporter’s disappointment and chatted for 90 minutes.

“Our main task is not to allow falsification of the votes,” he said. “And they have lots of cunning ways.”

So the observers will prevent falsification?

“No,” he said.

Molokoyedov, who is 74 and a 30-year Communist Party member, refused to criticize the mayor. The previous ones did nothing, he said, and now the city looks clean and has nice new fountains. “But, of course, everyone is talking about the criminalization of power,” he said. “What really goes on, we don’t know.”

All he knows is that everyone is sick and tired of the way the country’s run.

“The patience of people is hard to explain,” Krasilnikov said. “Usually it ends in an explosion.”

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