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Moscow: How the Vote Went Down

Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.

Presidential election winner Dmitri Medvedev (left) with Vladimir Putin. Image: Corbis

March 2, 2008, which Russians still call "Presidential Election Day," didn't differ much from any other Sunday. Well, maybe Moscow was unusually quiet as many people had decided to spend the first warm spring weekend at their dachas, or country homes.

There wasn't much activity at the polls either, which are traditionally set up in schools. There were, however, lots of police on the streets and armed service cadets. It was weird seeing so many people in uniform. Wandering around Moscow on election day, I wondered if I was in a police state.

Despite the city's general emptiness, the Central Election Commission quickly got word out that voter turnout was high. By noon, the commission stated that 16 percent of Russians had already cast their votes. That may seem an impressively high early count, but it's easily explained: The majority of the morning electorate comes from organized groups of voters, who, one way or another, are corralled into casting their vote. It's how many factory workers vote, for example.

It was weird seeing so many people in uniform. Wandering around Moscow on election day, I wondered if I was in a police state.

Several people told me that the companies they worked for were demanding employees return to work with a photo of their ballot as proof that they had voted and voted a certain way. The Russian military also votes in an organized block fashion. Typically, commanding officers arrange for ballots to be cast wherever their units are stationed. For the most part, the same goes for prisoners and those in long-term hospital care.

Pensioners are also big-morning voters, having grown accustomed to habits encouraged during Soviet times, when they voted by invitation of the party. An elderly woman at one Moscow polling station told me, "I did not get an invitation this time, for some reason. I thought they had written me off already. I always used to be the first to vote. So here I am," she said.

You might expect pensioners to vote for the Communists, as they did before the break up of the Soviet Union. Yet, when I asked several how they had cast their ballots, it was Putin -- not the Communists or even Dmitri Medvedev -- who they wanted to talk about. "Under Yeltsin, I didn't always get my pension," one grandmother told me. "But Putin adds 100 rubles [about $4] every six months."

Giant poster of Putin and Medvedev

A large poster of Putin and Medvedev hangs from a Moscow hotel.

During the last several elections, Russian government officials have used certain tactics to ensure a high turnout. Anyone who will not be at his or her official place of residence during election day (and therefore unable to vote in the traditional manner here) can vote with an absentee ballot. Using this ballot, a person can go to any polling place, and he or she can even vote at multiple stations. Unlike most countries, poll officials do no collect absentee ballots. Human rights activists and other independent observers reported that groups were being bused around from one polling station to the next in order to cast and recast their vote.

According to the General Election Commission, half a million more absentee ballots were issued than for the State Duma elections three months ago. That means nearly 1.5 million people have had the chance to vote an unlimited number of times in Sunday's election.

And the official outcome of all this? Medvedev received more than 70 percent of the vote.

But to what extent Russians really support Medvedev remains unclear. In my hometown of Omsk, the Siberian industrial city far from Moscow, people told me they were OK with Medvedev as long as he continues to provide the stability that Putin created. A doctor friend of mine in his 30s said he hoped there wouldn't be pay cuts under Medvedev. In the 1990s, my friend had no guarantee of a monthly paycheck. Now, he earns $300 a month, and he's loathe to risk losing it. He's also worried about a new leadership. After all, he says, changing course in Russia can mean chaos and that's a definite reminder of the country's revolutionary past.

In Moscow, the results of my sidewalk survey showed that Medvedev collected his two-thirds of the vote, which was reflected in the final official count.

Lyudmila Saveleva, a 60-year-old pensioner, told me that because the candidates were chosen without her input, she would not vote for any of them. However, she was hopeful that Medvedev might raise her pension.

The picture is somewhat different in my wife's hometown of Rostov-on-Don, a major commercial center sometimes called Russia's southern capital. Natalia, a 38-year-old nurse, did not vote. To her, Medvedev is powerless; with Putin looming large, why bother to cast a ballot. Alexander, 41, a highway construction worker, said he planned to vote only if he could deface the ballot in protest. There was no way, Alexander said, that his vote was going to Medvedev. Another pensioner, this one aged 94, was prepared to cast her vote for Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Life, she said, was better under the Communists.

In Moscow, the results of my sidewalk survey showed that Medvedev collected his two-thirds of the vote, which was reflected in the final result. But some people say they cast a hollow vote: Medvedev got their ballots, but not their hearts. Some claimed their bosses had threatened them: If they didn't support Medvedev, they would lose their jobs. Others explained that without any viable alternatives, Medvedev was the most attractive candidate. Still, some were ready to vote for ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, saying "at least he's not boring," or for a complete unknown and wild card in Andrei Bogdanov.

My wife and I and nearly all our friends were not able to vote. As renters in Moscow, we can only vote with an absentee ballot from our permanent place of residence, or where our family homes are located. For me, that's Omsk, and for my wife it's Rostov-on-Don. Both places are thousands of kilometers away, and our work doesn't allow for the time-consuming travel needed to pick up an absentee ballot. Most of our friends are in similar situations. In Russia, unlike in the United States and elsewhere, voting by mail is not an option. Unfortunately for us, neither is buying an apartment in Moscow simply to become a registered voter. Real estate here is just too expensive.

The reported high turnout of more than 70 percent feels like a hoax, if the sampling of my friends is any indication. And hearing that there was no real consensus on which candidate Russians preferred, the election of Medvedev as president amounts to much the same thing.

Russian Translation: Lydia Bryans

Reporter, Artyom Khan

Moscow-based correspondent, Artyom Khan.

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 as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle.

Russia Closes the Curtain

In an election that many Russians are apathetic about and the international community is calling a farce, Russian journalist Artyom Khan reports on why so few election observers are there to monitor the vote, and why it felt like a dark day for his country.

Who Is Mr. Medvedev?
"No one in Russia doubts that Dmitri Medvedev will be the next president," writes Artyom Khan in his second dispatch from Moscow. "That became clear last December, when Putin announced him as his chosen successor." But who is he? Even Russians don't really know.

Russia: Let the Campaigning Begin, Sort of
In Artyom Khan's first dispatch about the Russian election campaign, he visits his hometown of Omsk in Siberia, where some are asking, "What campaign?"

Russia: Putin's Plan
These dispatches are part of our coverage for the recent FRONTLINE/World broadcast, "Russia: Putin's Plan," which aired on PBS February 26. Watch the video online.