By David Fairlamb It's just two weeks to the Russian presidential election on Mar. 14. But on the morning of Feb. 29, politics was far from the minds of most passengers aboard the 7:40 a.m. bus from Krainka, a crumbling spa town 200 miles south of Moscow, to Kaluga, a gritty industrial city two hours' drive to the west. "I'm fed up of hearing about the election," says Alla Ivanova, a retired doctor who's going to visit her son for the day. "I'll just be glad when it's all over."
After a little prodding, however, the 14 passengers do get talking about their political preferences. Eleven say they plan to vote for incumbent Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent who's seeking a second term and is widely expected to win by a landslide. "He's the only one capable of running this country," says Anton Pogorelev, who works in the Suvorov power station some 10 miles from Krainka.
RURAL BACKWATER. Such strong support for Putin is surprising. Although the Russian economy has been growing fast -- at an average clip of more than 5% a year since 2000 -- few people beyond the "New Russian" middle class in Moscow and workers in the oil and gas sectors have seen much improvement in their living standards.
This causes great resentment in rural backwaters like Krainka. More than 10% of Krainka's 1,500 citizens are unemployed. The people lucky enough to have jobs earn less than $200 a month, on average. Just a handful have cars. Most can't afford the annual holiday that was more or less guaranteed to everyone under communism.
While Moscow is booming, Krainka is stagnating. The local sanatorium, which Russians have visited for 140 years to drink the water and bathe in the mineral-rich mud, is half empty most of the year. Set among attractive birch woods and rolling countryside, the sanatorium has established expertise in treating gastric problems and skin ailments, and it should be pulling clients in by the thousands. But management can't find the money needed to upgrade the aging facilities and market them effectively.
Krainka's hotel went bust after the Russian government defaulted on its domestic debt in 1998 and plunged the economy into deep recession. Many now fear that the Suvorov power station could fall victim to newer, more efficient power plants that have started operating in Kaluga and Obninsk.
NOT BLAMING PUTIN. The local infrastructure is in a terrible state. The phone system is antiquated, Krainka's apartment blocks haven't been renovated since they were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and the roads are potholed -- one reason the bus takes two hours to get to Kaluga, which is only 60 miles away. Because the local economy is in such dire straits, many people have gone to work in Tula, the ancient city 80 miles to the east that's now the center of Russia's armaments industry. Pogorelev's daughter works in the Kalashnikov factory there.
Surprisingly, few people in Krainka blame Putin for their woes. On the contrary, the President has an amazingly strong approval rating in the area -- upward of 80%, according to the local press. "The main thing is he has given us stability," says Aleksandr Alliluyev, a masseur from the sanatorium. "We had almost 10 years of chaos under [former President Boris] Yeltsin, but now things are calm again. Things may not be good here. But Putin has stopped them getting worse."
Other passengers applaud Putin's hard-line policy toward separatists in Chechnya, the Muslim republic in the far south of Russia, who have carried out a wave of terrorist attacks across Russia in recent years. Judging by the woeful security situation in Chechnya -- and, indeed, in Moscow -- Putin's approach doesn't seem to be working. But the locals in Krainka like it nonetheless.
THEY HAD IT COMING. Putin's crackdown on the oligarchs -- the handful of superrich businessmen who dominate the economy -- also finds favor in Krainka. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the largest shareholder in oil company Yukos, was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion and large-scale fraud last October, liberals in Moscow were quick to accuse Putin of misusing the law to silence a potentially powerful political rival. Khodorkovskiy had, after all, been considering running against Putin in the election.
Yet many folks in Krainka think the oligarch deserves his uncertain fate. "If you ask me, Khodorkovsky and the other oligarchs made themselves rich at the country's expense," says Marina Shrag, a machine operative in the Suvorova Nit acrylic factory, one of the few local businesses that are thriving. "They're too powerful, and their grip on the economy needs weakening."
Shrag isn't worried that Putin is becoming too dictatorial: "I don't think Putin is an authoritarian." She adds, "I think he's firm, and I think he's well organized. And I think we need a strong President to keep the country together and improve living standards for all of us."
Judging by the nationwide opinion polls, most Russians share the views of their compatriots in Krainka. It may be difficult for foreigners to fathom, but a clear majority of people from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok think Putin is doing a good job -- even though they would rather talk about sport or TV soaps than what's going on in the Kremlin. Fairlamb is a Frankfurt-based correspondent for BusinessWeek