Shoring up Putin in Russian countryside
By Kathy Lally,
IZHEVSK, Russia — Earlier this year, on a tour of the countryside in the western Urals, a local chieftain offered a blunt reminder about the workings of the Russian government:
Let demonstrators march on the streets of Moscow and protest all they want. But if a village desires so much as a long-promised school playground, it had better support President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party — big time.
That message is being sounded ever more loudly as regional elections draw near. In Moscow, Putin has ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development out of the country by Monday, accusing it of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs because it offers financial support to election monitors and human rights activists. Out in the hinterlands, local officials have been showing who is boss, too.
Putin’s system of top-down control — he calls it “the vertical of power” — gives those in the governing rungs below him authority and privilege in return for steadfast allegiance.
In Izhevsk, 600 miles east of Moscow, officials are busily demonstrating their loyalty, pouring extra cement into the foundation of the power structure. For Putin’s allies, the Oct. 14 election for the regional legislature must serve as an affirmation of his presidency, which he reclaimed in an election in March, and not as an opportunity for voters to express discontent.
“They believe Putin’s victory is their victory and their politics are correct,” said Mikhail Estrin, a media analyst in Izhevsk. “So they have permission for whatever they want to do.”
Izhevsk is the capital of a 1.5 million-strong region called the Udmurt Republic, where Alexander Volkov is president. Out on the hustings, he carries with him a notebook showing how each community voted in the December elections for the national parliament.
During his tour of the countryside, local leaders told Volkov that they had been waiting for years for a playground.
“What did you give United Russia in the last election?” he asked, according to a published transcript of the meeting.
“Sixty percent,” a supplicant called out.
Volkov leafed through his notebook. “No,” he said, “it was only 59.89 percent. Okay, work on yourself, improve yourself, and then come back.”
Last winter, big demonstrations against vote rigging that favored United Russia had the Moscow political landscape reverberating. Anti-corruption activists had managed to brand United Russia the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.” It got 49 percent of the vote in December, down from 64 percent in 2007. The party was humiliated, pundits contended, and the vertical of power was endangered.
If Izhevsk — home of the manufacturer of the Kalashnikov rifle and 628,000 citizens — is any indication, it will take more than that to challenge the system. Few people speak up about what they call “the power.” Some are afraid of reprisals, while others are cynical, convinced that what they say or do has no effect on a government they see as existing to serve itself instead of people.
A puzzling project
A few weeks ago, residents of a 50-year-old complex of five-story buildings on Kommunarov Street walked outside to find workmen measuring their courtyard. They were the lucky recipients of a public improvement, they were told, that would require cutting down 81 trees and laying two lanes of thick asphalt on each side of the courtyard.
The project was the work of the city’s environmental protection department, which occupies ground-floor offices in one of the Kommunarov apartments. (Closed for lunch 12 to 12:48, the sign says.) Residents said that when they demanded an explanation from the head of the agency, he went on vacation. His deputy said he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
The courtyard, once thick with trees (about 170), was a modest, weedy expanse about 215 yards long and 38 yards wide, but at least it was green. Residents tarted it up by painting discarded tires and turning them into planters.
An endocrinologist who lives in a one-room apartment with her 18- and 20-year-old sons said the trees helped clean the city air. Children could play there.
Now bulldozers are roaring. The roadbed is deep, thick enough for heavy trucks, the workmen say. Larisa Lavrentieva, an engineer who lives in one of the 520 apartments, said that the new sidewalks are too narrow, that permits have not been obtained and that other violations abound. She called the city’s chief architect, who spoke to her sympathetically on the phone, she said, until he realized she was a citizen and not a city employee. Then he angrily ended the conversation.
Inhabitants suspect that there are two reasons for the work: Improvements look good on reports, and opportunities to make money on the $500,000 project are plentiful, for companies and officials.
“I don’t know why our leaders hate trees so much,” Lavrentieva said.
Rewards and punishments
Izhevsk has a small, persevering but scared opposition that hopes to chip away at United Russia’s 75 percent majority in the Udmurt legislature. One candidate said he could not meet with this reporter and seemed fearful of discussing the reason on the phone. When the reporter walked into his party’s office the next day, he looked as if a cannonball with a lit fuse had just rolled in.
Opening the back door, he wordlessly ushered her outside, then whispered that he could be barred from the ballot if anyone photographed him talking with an American.
In the 2010 city council election, candidates from the opposition Patriots of Russia party were removed from the ballot two days before the vote, accused of election violations. Estrin, the media analyst, said it was assumed that they had been removed because they were too popular.
“They had all the protest vote behind them,” Estrin said, “and opinion polls showed them getting 20 to 30 percent. If it had only been 10 percent, they might have left them alone.”
Just before December’s election, Denis Agashin, Izhevsk’s city manager, told a gathering of veterans organizations that their funding for the next year would correspond directly to the United Russia vote in their districts. Sixty percent meant $32,000, less than that merited $15,000.
An irritated veteran recorded the episode on his phone and posted it on YouTube. Agashin was later fined the equivalent of $60.
Don’t look for any threat to the vertical of power in Izhevsk, said Lidiya Kulyabina, a professor of political science at Udmurt State University.
“Our president moderates between the local clans and federal power,” she said. “It’s comfortable for all of them. Everything is great for everyone — but the people.”