Democracy? Russia Will Drink to That

Memories of Soviet-era elections make voting today a cause for celebration. Vodka, music, and gossip at the polls also help

By David Fairlamb

At one end of the hall, they're selling freshly baked pies and pastries. At the other end, flowers, fruit, pottery, and books. Welcome to polling station 917 in the Izmailovo district of northeast Moscow, where it's 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, Mar. 14, and voting in Russia's presidential election is in full swing (see BW Online, 4/15/04, "Putin's Absolute Triumph").

Russians don't simply go to the polls to do their civic duty, they go to have a good time. "I like the party atmosphere," says retiree Marina Shcherbakova, who's sitting drinking tea with a group of neighbors. "And everything is so much cheaper here than in the ordinary shops." Shcherbakova says she's having such a good time exchanging gossip with her friends that she might stay until lunchtime. "I sometimes think it's a shame we don't have elections more often," she adds.


  Making voting day fun is a hangover from communist times, when only one name appeared on the ballot paper and elections were a total sham. In those days, the government would sell goods that were in short supply in the polling stations to ensure a festive mood and strengthen citizens' loyalty. Caviar, sausages, vodka, and champagne would all be on sale. And there would always be a live band and, sometimes, even dancing.

"I thought they'd have had real music here today," says Georgiy Ivanov, a local trolley-bus driver who had just cast his ballot. "But all they've got is that piped modern stuff. Perhaps the electoral commission is short of funds."

Partly in an effort to save money, the Russian voting system is under review. This year, the authorities are experimenting with electronic voting machines in some regions -- though in Izmailovo they're still using traditional ballot papers and pens. The process would be quicker and cheaper if it were computerized, the electoral commission says. Many ordinary Russians are skeptical, on the grounds that an electronic system isn't tamper-proof.


  Russia uses a first-past-the-post system like the U.S. or Britain. Voters simply go into one of the voting booths, make a cross against the candidate of their choice and pop the completed ballot paper into the ballot box. In Soviet times, when just one candidate was running, it was considered a sign of disloyalty to go into one of the booths and mark the ballot paper. A blank ballot was considered to be a vote in favor of the one name on it. The name of anyone brave enough to actually mark a ballot was recorded, and the police would undoubtedly call.

Now it's very different. Seven names were on the ballot paper for President, so people had a real choice. And if they didn't want to vote for anyone, there was an abstention box to tick. Still, many critics of incumbent President Vladimir Putin, who easily won a second term, say although Russian elections are now free, they're far from fair. That's because Putin benefited from favorable coverage on government-controlled TV channels and in the press, much of which is owned by Kremlin supporters.

Irina Rinkus, who works as a bank teller isn't worried. "I don't trust anything I see on TV and made up my own mind how to vote," she says. "And having been brought up under communism, I can't begin to tell you how great it is to have a real choice." That goes for pies, pastries, pottery, and books, as well as candidates.

Frankfurt Bureau Correspondent Fairlamb visited Russian for the election

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.