Graham Stack in Tver, Russia -
Tver is the region 80 miles to the north of Moscow where the mighty "Mother Volga" has its source. Known as the "meeting of seven seas" because of its strategic location at the heart of Russia's river network, the city of Tver is part of the Golden Ring of medieval towns that is a treasure trove of Russia's history.
History apart, today's Tver is simply a small provincial capital of 400,000, where many inhabitants still have ties to the surrounding villages, but where an increasing number commute to work in Moscow, sometimes returning only for the weekends. The spillover from Moscow's wealth has raised living standards here, but the proximity of Moscow's swank also highlights for the people of Tver the huge divides in today's Russia. So Tver can count as a cross-section of Russian society - with wealth trickling down, but not fast enough to mend the damage that poverty is doing.
All the same, Tver is in festive mood. The neat streets of the city's historical heart look a treat - with fresh snow on the ground, seasonal illuminations sparkling in the trees lining the pedestrian zones, and Christmas pines standing proudly in the central square. On frosty weekend evenings, the many revelers crunch their way through the snow between the restaurants, bars and clubs that dot this pretty area of town on the right bank of the Volga. The seasonal festivities are not free of politics: in Tver, elections are being held on December 2 not only for the State Duma in Moscow, but also for the city's mayor, and the impressive early installation of street decorations will reflect well in voters' eyes on the incumbent mayor, United Russia's Oleg Lebedev.
Like much of Russia, almost all of the passers-by say they voted for the United Russia party, whose electoral list is topped by President Vladimir Putin. "Putin, of course," is the answer that falls most frequently. With 97.8% of the vote counted in the parliamentary elections, United Russia was well ahead with 64.1% of the vote. This would give the party 315 seats and clear the way for Putin to become an all-powerful PM after he finishes his second term as president in March. The Communist Party was second with 11.6%, followed by the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia with 8.2% and Fair Russia with 7.8%.
"He's done a lot for the country," says Sergei, 55, a pensioner, who is hurrying with his wife to the polling station. "He doesn't talk like all the others. Anyone can talk - he gets things done. I like his politics." Asked if he would vote in the presidential elections for any candidate backed by Putin, Sergei shook his head. "But I would vote for what's his name, the prime minister, Zubkov, as president. He's experienced, knows what he's doing, won't make mistakes. He's not that old that his mind's going weak or anything."
Svetlana, fashionably dressed, in her 20s, hurries past laughing, but calls over her shoulder: "United Russia, of course."
Dasha and Sasha, both 18, Sasha starting college, Dasha working in a call centre for consumer credit retail, have voted for the first time. But when asked for whom, they say, presumably diplomatically, "we've forgotten."
Alexandra, 30, an accountant, says she intends to vote "against all." When informed that the "against all" option has been abolished, she laughs and says, "well then, I suppose, United Russia."
"Stability" is the most frequent single response from those who voted or intend to vote for United Russia. 'We need stability," says Vyacheslav, a type-setter, "for the time being." Asked if he would vote for Putin at the coming presidential elections, he says "yes, if he stood, but I doubt he will. Otherwise I'll vote for whoever's going to carry on from him."
Dmitry, 27, who, unusually for men in the provinces, sports an earring, says he is "of course" for Putin. "There's just no one better at the moment."
Another Dmitry, who graduated as an engineer two years ago, says he is more concerned about local politics, and voted primarily for the incumbent mayor, Oleg Lebedev to be reelected. "He brought order into the town." Lebedev, although now a United Russia member, is facing strong opposition with media backing that accuses him of flirting with pro-Western liberal politicians such as former PM Mikhail Kasyanov, who was allowed to hold an electoral meeting in Tver.
High over the Volga on a winter's afternoon, people simply seem happy to have the chance to vote for Putin one last time.
Food inflation feeds doubts
However, not all of those who are in favour of Putin, intend to vote for United Russia. "If everyone votes for United Russia, we'll just end up with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union again," says Valentina Ivanova, a pensioner. "The country needs different opinions. I'm a pensioner, so I voted for the pensioners' party," meaning the Just Russia party, a pro-Putin left-leaning populist creation of Putin ally Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house.
Yet another Dmitry, a 30-year-old teacher, is undecided about whether to vote United Russia or a leftwing party such as Just Russia or the Communists. "I'm going now to meet my wife, and we'll decide together who to vote for. Inflation is terrible at the moment. Food's getting very expensive. And this is the government's fault."
The surge in consumer price inflation that began in September is an issue that is already causing some to have their doubts about the country's political direction - opinion polls show it shaving 6% of United Russia's rating, the same amount its rating grew by after Putin announced he would top the electoral list. Food price inflation is even higher than statistically recorded inflation, and hits hardest the poorest Russians such as pensioners, who spend more proportionally on food products.
"I don't like United Russia," says Vadim, a well-groomed 32-year-old in an expensive-looking leather jacket, who says he is a doctor. "I like Putin, but United Russia don't do anything - they just make a lot of noise. I'll vote for the Communist Party, or Just Russia."
A heavily-built man in his 50s who declined to give his name, said he was not going to vote. "What's the point? It's all been decided. I don't want anything from them, and they don't want anything from me."
Sergei, a 35-year-old driver, who at first glance might seem a communist or nationalist voter, poorly dressed and laden down in the cold with two bags full of vegetables from the market, proves to be the most vocal. "I voted SPS," he states surprisingly, referring to the pro-Western liberal party closely associated with the privatizations of the 1990s, and which received only 3% of the vote in 2004. "Because they're one's who got the most mud thrown at them and most harassment. Everyone's talking about it in Moscow. Nemtsov is okay, what did they need to arrest him for?" Boris Nemtsov, a still youthful Yeltsin-era governor and deputy prime minister now leading the SPS electoral list, was detained in St Petersburg last week after a demonstration by the umbrella opposition movement Other Russia.
"Moscow construction companies are all coming here and taking over the market," Sergei complains. "But what do we ever get to build in Moscow?"
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