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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Referendum in The Provinces: Irrelevant Poll?

Reporters on the trail of a good story speak of having a lion by the tail. Throughout the month of April, in pursuit of the story of the referendum, it often seemed that I had a sleepy koala by the tail.


I traveled 14, 000 kilometers from Karelia to Yakutsk and logged 23 hours of inflight time aboard Aeroflot planes following a story that often seemed to be of interest only to me.


I fired referendum questions at people in stores, at bus stops, in planes, walking on the street, going to class and waiting in lines. More often than not it was like asking a teenager about his school day; you've never seen so many shoulders shrug.


Replies were often less than inspired.


Alexander Gritsevich, 43, a Kuzbass miner: "Vote? Tell me please, what are the questions? "


Valentina Alexandrova, a teacher who was seated in an ice cream parlor in Petrozavodsk:


"Referendum? I thought we were going to talk about ice cream".


Vladimir Ponomaryov, a wood framer near Yakutsk: "I'd like to vote, but I have to finish an order by Monday".


A medal-studded babushka who got the replies backward while speaking at a pro-Yeltsin rally in Kemerovo : "We must all support our president and vote 'Nyet-Nyet-Da-Nyet'".


Who could blame them for their apathy and confusion?


What a fiasco! Hastily assembled, poorly framed and doomed from the outset to produce an ambiguous result, the referendum was viewed by a great many Russians as a hideous waste of money and just another example of why democracy doesn't transplant well onto Russian soil.


While the results of the referendum were a qualified victory for Yeltsin and may help him in his scrap with parliament, particularly with regard to a new constitution, it was a far cry from a true mandate for action. People wondered legitimately: Why should I bother?


Interestingly, I found that the apathy extended beyond the act of voting, and included the result itself. It was an indicator of how, in independence-minded republics, events in impotent Moscow are becoming increasingly irrelevant.


In the Russian provinces, I was surprised to see that this ambivalence extended beyond the local population into political circles where local officials acted more like spectators than active participants in the referendum.


In the republic of Mordovia where a power struggle mirrors the one in Moscow, the speaker of the parliament not only refused to state a public position, he refused even to say how he would personally vote


"I honestly can't think of a single way the referendum will matter here", he said. "That effects Yeltsin and Moscow. This is Mordovia".