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Russia: Let the Campaigning Begin, Sort of

Reporter, Artyom Khan.

What's remarkable about Russia's 2008 presidential campaign is the near total absence of campaigning. Many experts in Moscow have noticed this, but I was in Omsk, in the heartland, recently, and average Russians were saying the same thing. One evening, I talked with theater actor Timofei Grekov across his kitchen table, just as dissidents used to do in Soviet times.

"Who are you going to vote for?" I asked.

"For [Dmitri] Medvedev," he replied. "What else can I do? The nation's leadership sets the rules, and we all follow them. I always used to vote for the Yabloko party and [Grigory] Yavlinsky. But then I realized that it's just silly to vote for someone who'll never be given the chance to win."

"What do you know about Medvedev?" I asked.

"There's no information in Omsk about the candidates! There was no real campaigning. But on TV, I saw Medvedev sitting next to Putin at a government session. I know that whoever sits next to Putin is going to be president," Grekov replied.

Dmitri Medvedev

Russia's Presidential frontrunner, Dmitri Medvedev.

The presidential campaign in Omsk actually began earlier than it was supposed to, and there were gross violations of the law. A few campaigners came to universities, hospitals and factories. They asked employees to gather and told them that they were conducting a sociological study. They handed workers a questionnaire with just three questions. Walking down the street, recently, somebody handed me a flyer with the results of this fake study. Here are those three questions and how they polled:

1.Do you know that the Russian presidential election will be held on March 2?

Yes, I know. -- 92%
No, I don't know. -- 5%
No response. -- 3%

2. Will you vote in the Russian presidential election on March 2, 2008?

Yes, I'll go. -- 60%
No, I won't go. -- 15%
No response. -- 25%

3. Do you know that if Dmitri Anatolevich Medvedev wins a decisive victory in the Russian presidential election, Omsk municipal officials can use federal funding to implement significant health care, education and housing programs?

Yes, I know. -- 52%
No, I don't know. -- 30%
No response. -- 18%

At the bottom of the flyer it read:
The Omsk Opinion community foundation conducted a sociological study from January 22-29. 100,000 city residents participated in the survey. The Omsk Opinion community foundation ordered and paid for the study.

The questionnaire reminded me of a joke going around about Putin staying on for a third term. In the joke, the government decides to have a referendum to change the constitution, and people are asked one question:

Wouldn't you mind if Vladimir Putin were re-elected?

Answer:

a) Yes, I wouldn't mind.
b) No, I wouldn't mind.

Just as in Soviet times, this joke was told only in people's kitchens, in private, like my conversation with Grekov, the actor at the Omsk Youth Theatre.

Far from Moscow, people don't know anything. It's easier to control them that way. That's how it was in the Soviet Union. That's how it's become under Putin. And it's likely how it will be under Medvedev.

Having no choice and no right to vote is strange. But having no information is stranger still. As a journalist living and working in Moscow, I know a little about what's happening in the government. In regions far from Moscow, people don't know anything. It's easier to control them that way. The government plays up this advantage. That's how it was in the Soviet Union. That's how it's become under Putin. And it's likely how it will be under Medvedev. Because, really, if you are a successor and not a real candidate, why would you change anything? To keep power, you just need to preserve what is already in place.

To do that in regions like Omsk, you don't need to do much. Here's a glimpse of life in the Russian heartland. Omsk is the historic capital of Siberia. In tsarist Russia, it was a place of exile. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky is the best-known name to come out of the labor camps here. By the middle of the 20th century, Omsk became a major industrial city. During World War II, several machine-building and machine-tool plants arrived in Omsk.

Putin poster at school.

A portrait of a youthful President Putin on the wall of an Omsk kindergarden next to a portrait of the Madonna and some toys.

In the 1950s, oil refineries and chemical plants took hold. Meanwhile, virgin lands were being cultivated and the region's population quickly increased to two million. An intelligentsia emerged, and excellent institutions such as Omsk State University, the Academy of Medicine and the Technical Institute produced highly qualified specialists.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the city became distinguished for its rich culture. The local drama theater is still famous across the nation, though it's not as good as it was. But the city's Fifth Theatre takes the European festivals by storm. In the 1990s, life in Omsk began to wane. Plants were shut down; agriculture began falling apart. The city got by on federal subsidies and oil-refinery revenues.

For the past few years, during Putin's presidency and Leonid Polezhaev's term as regional governor, the decline has been kept in check. But the city's population has already changed. A large group of merchants has joined the working middle class (engineers and specialists) and the intelligentsia. Private business still isn't growing, and the generational profile in Omsk has also changed. In 1991, birth rates in the city dropped dramatically. There are so few children that some schools are on the brink of closing; children are brought in from several schools just to assemble a class of 20 kids. Older people account for a large percentage of the population.

That's why the locals like "Putin's Plan." For them, it means stability. People are afraid to lose what they have now: The average monthly pension is 2,000 rubles (US$80).

Evidently, that is why the locals like "Putin's Plan." For them, it means stability. People are afraid to lose what they have now: The average monthly pension is 2,000 rubles (US$80), and the average monthly paycheck is 5,000 rubles ($200). That's what doctors, teachers, actors, young and old were telling me.

Everyone believes that their current lifestyle is linked to the new regime and preserving the Putin regime means that they will continue to stay afloat. That's why the people of Omsk don't identify with the words of Russian poet and dissident Alexander Galich, who said, "I choose freedom."

Russian Translation: Lydia Bryans

Artyom Khan was born in the Siberian city of Omsk in 1973. For the past eight years, Khan has lived in Moscow, first working for the radio station Moscow Speaking and later for the Russian News Service. In May 2007, he left the Russian News Service in protest over the editorial policies of the station's new management, which decreed that 50 percent of the station's news must be positive. Since his departure, he has been working for Deutsche Welle. This is the first of several dispatches he will be sending about the election campaign.

50% Good News Is the Bad News In Russian Radio
This New York Times article from April 2007 reports on the circumstances around the takeover of the Russian News Service, the largest independent radio news network in Russia. The report reveals that journalists were told by new management that 50 percent of their reports had to be positive, that opposition leaders could not be mentioned on air, and that the United States had to be portrayed in a negative light.

Russia: Putin's Plan
Visit our preview page to watch video clips from "Russia: Putin's Plan," the next FRONTLINE/World broadcast airing on PBS February 26.

REACTIONS

Wanda Scarborough - Weatherford, TX
I was amazed to find out that the US media is no different from the Russian media. Both media only let the politicians they want to win get any publicity. The opportunity to hear truth from the politicians is not allowed because not everyone running gets an equal opportuntiy to speak. We don't get a choice in who runs, just the media. We are more Communist than I would like to think here in America. Suppression and control of the media is the beginning of a government that controls its people. I don't even believe the media anymore because there is no truth or fairness in the reporting. I will listen to Christian radio talk shows, at least they aren't supposed to lie or they aren't Christian. I certainly can't trust the regular media, most have no reason or morals to be fair and honest.

Mt. Vernon, Maine
Thank you so much for this very fine program. I have made 7 trips to Russia to visit dear friends in Arkhangelsk Oblast. I have fallen in love with Russia and Russians. It breaks my heart to see what is happening there today and to know my friends can't see it.
Thank you for your courageous and outstanding work. A . At a time when so much of the media is pandering to "consumers" it is reassuring to know there are journalists and producers determined to inform us as citizens and regard us as real people.

Warr Acres, Oklahoma
Simplistic seems how these stories define themselves. There definitely are people in Russia who do think and who can get irritated with Putin and his team of Big Brother. What is lacking is the interaction of Americans and Germans and the French and Russians. What is missing is the ability to ferret out the real truth and not just what some group of journalists want you to believe is the truth. Can we trust the opposition press? Can we believe anything about Russia? With contacts and interactions, the answer is "Maybe". Sign me up!