Petersburgers underwhelmed by "Kinder Surprise" Medvedev

By bne IntelliNews March 3, 2008

Graham Stack in St Petersburg -

As universally expected, Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, strongly backed by incumbent President Vladimir Putin and enjoying a lion's share of media coverage, won 70.2% of the vote in the presidential election with almost 100% counted. Distant second came Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov with 17.77%, followed by nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 9.37% and rank outsider liberal Andrei Bogdanov with just 1.2%.

Both Putin and Medvedev hail from St Petersburg, and the city shows the extent to which Putin has reshaped the Russian political landscape. Once a strong hold of Russian liberalism, with liberal parties like SPS and Yabloko taking 30-40% of the vote in the 1990s, now the pro-Putin United Russia party enjoys a majority in the city's parliament, and liberals lead a marginal existence.

At the same time, St Petersburg has shaped the new Russian political landscape: Not only Putin and Medvedev, but the majority of Putin's Kremlin team worked in the city's administration in the 1990s.

Like Putin, 42-year-old Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's new president, is a son of Russia's cultural capital. He was born, grew up, studied and worked in the city until the Anatoly Sobchak administration in which Putin was vice mayor lost the municipal elections in 1996. Medvedev's wife is also from the city.

However, this does not guarantee him the affection of his fellow Petersburgers, although his backing from Vladimir Putin guaranteed him their vote. Many on the historical streets of the city centre on election day March 2 were skeptical about Medvedev's leadership qualities and mocked his lack of charisma. In voting for Medvedev, they did not vote for the person, but for stability, and for Putin.

"Yes, we voted for Medvedev, but we don't like him" said Olga, 35, an architect, and her friend Masha, 27, agreed. "We've never seen much of him, and he doesn't come across positively on TV. He's wooden. I voted for stability, and because there's no alternative to Medvedev." Both also agreed: "We liked Putin much better, but the law rules out more than two terms."

When asked if they considered Russia a democracy, they both laughed. "Perhaps in a relative sense," said Olga. "We've a long way to go before we're a democracy," said Masha. But both are proud that the third Russian president is a Petersburger.

"I will vote for Medvedev because of Putin" said Leonara Kononova, 71, "but he hasn't really done anything or said anything independently."

Lena, 25, who works in radiophysics, said she had not decided who to vote for. For Lena as well, Medvedev suffers by comparison with Putin, "I don't like the way he speaks - he can't construct proper sentences. It's always pleasant to listen to Putin speaking. He answers quickly and in clear sentences." Lena's biggest concern is the state of science in the country. "So many friends leave the country after studying to do their PhDs abroad. They get offered good grants and jobs."

Almost all those voting for Medvedev would have preferred to see Putin stay - although, as most added, he is not exactly going either, since he is set to become prime minister. "Putin should have stayed," said 24-year-old Svetlana, selling souvenirs at a stand. "We've got used to him."

"No I don't like Medvedev particularly, but Putin is staying anyway as prime minister, so it's OK," said 22-year-old Dima. "The main thing is for the authorities to observe people's rights," said his girlfriend Sascha.

"We'd have liked Putin to stay" said Marat and Kamilla, 22 and 21. Marat, a manager, added that, "the most important thing is that there is no default again."

Some who support Putin voted or were considering voting against Medvedev. Tatiana, 55, a nurse by profession, said that she had voted for Zyuganov. "Medvedev is too young. What's he ever done? He is like a Kinder Surprise." But her sister Elena, a librarian, said she voted for Medvedev because of Putin.

Another pair of sisters, teachers Alexandra and Nastya in their mid-20s, said they approved of Putin, "who's going to stay anyway," but they had voted for Bogdanov, the long-haired outsider pro-EU candidate. "He's an alternative kind of guy. They were showing Medvedev on TV all the time, it was unbearable," said Nastya.

Ironically, however, most analysts agree that the Bogdanov candidacy was initiated by the Kremlin to increase the number of candidates. Alexandra and Nasty hoped for an end to bureaucratic arbitrariness in Russia.

Even a member of Edinaya Rossiya, 35-year--old neurologist Mikhail, had little positive to say about Medvedev's personality. He said he thought it was good to separate politics from personality, and said he was simply voting for his party's candidate. The greatest current danger he sees is for Russia to get "dizzy with success" and overplay its hand on the international stage.

Irina 62, was one of the few with something positive to say about Medvedev: "He is young and clever, and the partnership with Putin will be strong."

Arkady, 32, a rock musician, was positive about Medvedev because of his taste in music - Medvedev is a Deep Purple fan. As to Russia's international status, Arkady believed that "countries will start respecting us when we learn to respect each other."

"Russia's biggest problem is high prices for oil," he said ironically, and no, he does not consider Russia a democracy.

The protest vote

Vyacheslav, a 70-year-old post office worker whose vote went to the Communist Party's Zyuganov, is one of the few to offer sharp criticism of Putin. He was outraged by Putin's recent statement that, "whether you like it or not, we need to raise the salaries of civil servants many times over."

"He won't raise pensions, but he brazenly declares he's going to raise his own salary a number of times over, whether we like it or not!" Vyacheslav said that Russia is "at the most to be only 50% democratic."

Alla, 55 years old, voted for Zyuganov because of his policy of nationalization of natural resources, a point mentioned by other communist voters.

Alexei, 18, said he intended to vote for anyone except Medvedev and the United Russia party, and had voted for nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Duma elections in December. He pointed to inflation and pensions as the main problems in Russia, and also a lack of national pride.

The most damning criticism came from those who refused to vote, because they held the vote to be pre-decided. "It's all a farce, it's all arranged," said 40-year-old engineer Yevgeny, who nevertheless speaks positively about Putin as honest and hardworking. "The country will only change when the relationship between people changes, when people start to think of others instead of just themselves," he philosophised.

Sveta, 27, a doctor, and Seryozha, 45, a technician, were also not intending to vote, because they hold it all for a charade. They even denied that Putin and Medvedev had anything to do with St Petersburg. "They've been in Moscow for so long," Seryozha said. "Moscow has swallowed them up like a swamp."

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