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.