Vyacheslav Ananiev, co-owner of a software company in Novosibirsk in the middle of Russia, says there’s only one option for him in next week’s presidential election: Vladimir Putin.
Although he didn’t vote for the prime minister’s United Russia party in legislative elections last December and sympathizes with the tens of thousands of Moscow protesters who say the process was rigged, he plans to back Putin on March 4.
“The presidential election is not a subject for a protest vote,” Ananiev said as he waited for a visiting Putin to see his company’s stand amid several projects at a new technology park near Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. “Power here is centralized and depends on leaders, not parliament.”
Putin’s five-day trip ending last week shows, as do polls, why the prime minister probably will win in the first round of voting. Ananiev, 47, says he sees no alternative. Student Olga Krasnova in Novosibirsk says Russia needs “strong men.” In Komsomolsk-na-Amure, 6,073 kilometers (3,774 miles) from Moscow, Air Force Major Alexander Soloviev earns more money because of defense-spending increases. Aviation factory worker Tatyana Vinokurova appreciates Putin for the maternal benefits she’ll receive if she has a second child.
Even as protesters in Moscow carry anti-Putin placards, the majority of voters are lured by the prime minister’s campaign pledges to raise government spending by 4.8 trillion rubles ($170 billion) through 2018. That’s as much as 5 percent of economic output, according to a Capital Economics estimate.
Putin pledged today that the retirement age won’t be raised and pensions will continue to grow. “Everything we are doing is devoted to one goal -- improving the quality of life of Russian citizens,” he told supporters at a meeting in Moscow.
The premier’s support also stems from his economic base: Russia’s economy grew 4.8 percent from a year earlier in the third quarter, the sixth-fastest pace among the Group of 20 major economies. Russia’s dollar-denominated RTS stock index has outperformed the MSCI Emerging Markets index more than sevenfold since Putin became acting president on Dec. 31, 1999.
Putin will probably win Russia’s presidential election with 66 percent of those who plan to vote, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center, 16 percentage points more than needed to give him a first-round victory. Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov was second with 15 percent.
The survey was conducted from Feb. 17 to Feb. 20 on 1,600 respondents and has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. The prime minister’s electorate is concentrated in medium and small cities and villages, said Lev Gudkov, director of the independent polling service.
“These are the people who like a strongman who hands out benefits, who are not ready for a change and prefer to keep the status quo,” said Nikolay Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Protesters are always a minority but they are much more active and visible than Putin’s supporters. Countryfolk are traditionally more active voters. Protesters are concentrated in big cities and the turnout in cities is usually less than in the countryside.”
Supporters of Putin are unconcerned about his regime’s record on corruption, transparency and political freedom, said Yelena Panfilova, who heads the Moscow office of Transparency International. Putin during his eight years as president from 2000 to 2008 didn’t pass “a single anti-corruption law” whereas current President Dmitry Medvedev adopted at least four major anti-corruption measures and several decrees, she said.
Even after a slight improvement in the past four years, Russia is still viewed as a significantly corrupt economy, according to Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. Russia has higher levels of perceived graft than Pakistan, Cameroon and Niger.
“People who vote for Putin simply don’t know any other kind of stability,” Panfilova said. “This stability is based on monopoly of power, monopoly of bureaucracy, monopoly of the state in the economy. Lack of political freedom, corruption, human rights abuses are derivatives of this monopoly.”
The alleged plot to assassinate Putin revealed on Feb. 28 may augment his popularity in small and rural areas, said Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation research group, based in Putin’s hometown.
The premier can expect support in the capital as well: In the city of Moscow, site of the largest protest rallies, the official result for Putin’s United Russia in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections was about 47 percent while the Communist party got 19 percent. In the industrial Novosibirsk region, which is farther from Moscow than London is, United Russia won 34 percent and the Communists got 30 percent.
Exit polls for Moscow showed a smaller margin than do the election results: United Russia was at 28 percent compared with the Communists’ 26 percent, according to surveys by the Public Opinion Foundation.
“People will vote for Putin mainly because they don’t see an alternative,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political adviser for the Kremlin from 1996 to 2011 who now runs a political consulting firm. “His core electorate is quite diverse. It is united by phobias such as fear of change, fear of revolution, fear of unemployment.”
‘Battle for Russia’
Putin has championed social and economic calm since taking over from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, whose tenure was marked by hyperinflation, an attempted coup and the government’s 1998 default. Putin urged solidarity in a Feb. 23 rally in Moscow attended by as many as 100,000 people. Hundreds of buses that had brought attendees surrounded the stadium.
“The battle for Russia continues,” the prime minister shouted from a gigantic blue stage in the middle of the sports arena. “The victory will be ours!” He vowed to fight injustice, urged everyone to unite for Russia and warned people “not to look abroad.”
Mikhail Kusnirovich, chairman of Bosco Di Ciliegi, the Russian company that owns the GUM department store on Moscow’s Red Square, was one attendee who said he was impressed.
“I have no doubts he is a leader,” Kusnirovich said as he left the stadium. “A grownup man who achieved a lot in this great country has no other motivation than just make the country good. He is doing this fair and responsibly.”
Opposition to Putin coalesced after Medvedev, 46, agreed in September to give up the chance of a second term to allow Putin, 59, to reclaim the Kremlin. Putin offered Medvedev the premier’s job in return, a move that together with the allegations of electoral fraud ignited the largest anti-government protests since the 1990s. Putin, who has been in power for 12 years, is seeking a six-year term.
The swap motivated Moscow cafe co-owner Andrei Petrenko to get involved in the protests. He also went to monitor voting at one of the polling stations on Dec. 4.
“I would understand if Medvedev decided to stay on for the second term,” he said in downtown Moscow at a Feb. 4 march that brought together about 100,000 people. “But when I see that the president of such a country as Russia says he is so weak that he should give way to another one, what is this? They should go and try to lead in Zimbabwe or Honduras, not Russia.”
Petrenko said that he would run for the municipal council seat for the first time and he would vote for the communists.
Seven time zones away in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, a defense-industry center, welder Roman Obukhov, 25, also said he would vote for Zyuganov.
‘Live and Steal’
“I just see how these officials live and steal,” Obukhov said while walking with his wife and one-year-old daughter at about -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) on a sunny Feb. 19 near the Amur River. “Here in my land Americans dig gold, wood is sold to Chinese and I have nothing,” added Obukhov, who said he earns 25,000 rubles a month.
The area is a leading recipient of aid. In the Khabarovsk region that is home to Komsomolsk-na-Amure, federal subsidies in 2010 were 23.6 percent of the regional budget’s revenue.
Social spending helps attract support from Vinokurova, the aviation-factory worker in Komsomolsk-na-Amure. The 32-year-old, who works in quality control at the state-owned Sukhoi plant assembling Russian fighter jets, says she prefers Putin because his benefits will let her afford more than one child.
She said she had an eight-year-old daughter and had plans to have another baby, entitling her to a one-time state benefit worth about $12,000. “If I have a third child I will get a piece of land,” said Vinokurova, who earns 15,000 rubles a month.
Similarly, spending on rebuilding Russia’s army brought Putin support from the military. Soloviev, the air-force major in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, said his annual salary has risen to 79,000 rubles compared with 34,000 rubles last year. “We should look for a change in something else but who the president is,” said Soloviev as he consumed a dinner of Asian food with his family at B-2, one of the town’s high-end restaurants.
Putin’s rating is on the rise because he is conducting a “Stalinist campaign of personality whose main message is, ‘I am the only one who can guarantee anything in this country. My departure would be a catastrophe for you,’” said Pavlovsky, who helped manage Putin’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004 and Medvedev’s in 2008. About 30 percent of the population always votes for incumbent leaders, he said.
Some voters see Putin as the least evil of the options. “All candidates have programs I don’t understand,” said Yana Ignatieva, 19, who studies economics in Komsomolsk-na-Amure. “Putin has stability.”
Still, she may reconsider voting for Putin because she thinks prices are rising too fast and there is too much state corruption.
“Putin will receive my vote whether I vote or not,” she said. “But I will come to polling station because I want to vote myself. And maybe I will change my mind and will vote for anybody but Putin.”