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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete Voters Throw Up Their Hands

ST. PETERSBURG -- Anna Aldukhova, 19, stood on a corner of Ploshchad Vosstaniya wearing a blue cap and windbreaker that bore the name of the front-runner in St. Petersburg's approaching gubernatorial runoff. She passed out leaflets promising a better quality of life. No one paid much attention.

For a campaign volunteer, she hardly seemed enthusiastic herself. "People are a little bit tired of promises -- and don't believe any of them anymore," she said as men and women bustled by, most of them ignoring her outstretched hand.

The campaign for governor has been widely cast as a barometer of President Vladimir Putin's political strength heading into parliamentary elections in December and his own re-election race next March. What it has really shown, however, is the jaded indifference of voters.

Only 29 percent of eligible voters -- 1 million of 3.75 million in all -- bothered to vote in the first round Sept. 21, and because no candidate got 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will take place Sunday.

The candidates and others blamed local factors for the dismal turnout: the timing (early fall, one of the last weekends to spend at country dachas), the weather (sunny) and the fact that the front-runner, Valentina Matviyenko, seemed assured of victory because of overwhelming Kremlin support.

Voter apathy, however, is hardly special to this campaign or this city. Twelve years after the Soviet Union's collapse, most Russians have become strikingly -- and, some say, ominously -- disillusioned about democracy's most basic right.

To critics of Putin and his Kremlin coterie of former security officers, this is proof that Russia's leaders today are indelibly cast in the Soviet mold and have squashed freedom of speech to such a degree that apathy is the result.

"It's symptomatic of the crisis of 'managed democracy' Putin is trying to implement," Danil Kotsyubinsky, a St. Petersburg political journalist, said of the turnout. "It's a little regional model of a huge national crisis."

After seven decades of Soviet one-party rule, Russians remain deeply distrustful of government at all levels. As a people, they are also deeply passive. Russia today has all the trappings of democracy -- elections, campaigns, TV commercials, polls -- but little passion for it.

"It appears to be a democracy," said Alexander Yurin of the Institute for Development of Election Systems in Moscow. "But it hasn't changed much in terms of popular support for government. People do not think who or what they vote for will influence their lives. And they don't think they have much choice."

Certainly voter turnout suggests a lack of care. The governor of the Leningrad region, which surrounds St. Petersburg, was re-elected on Sept. 21 in a race that attracted only fractionally more voters: 29.46 percent. A gubernatorial runoff in the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals brought just 32 percent to the polls.

The city of Murmansk, in the Far

North, elected a new mayor on Sept. 7 with 35 percent taking part. The city of Vladivostok, in the Far East, elected a new city parliament in June with less than a 17 percent turnout.

"The worst thing that can happen is to have the powers elected without the voters at all," warned Mikhail Amosov, who ran for governor in St. Petersburg as the candidate of the liberal Yabloko party. He got 7 percent of the vote, less than the 11 percent that selected the line "against all candidates."

Apathy is threatening even the national races.

Even though December's parliamentary elections could well determine the course of Putin's second term, an opinion survey published this week suggested that 40 percent of Russians had little interest in them; 21 percent of 1,600 respondents in 100 cities and towns across Russia had no interest at all.

Another poll this month suggested that as few as 54 percent intended to vote, compared with 61 percent four years ago and 64 percent in 1995.

Sergei Gorilovsky, a businessman who owns a food store and a new printing house, sat out the Sept. 21 vote. He once supported the party that most vocally advocates for small businesses, the Union of Right Forces; increasingly, he said, even its candidates had grown remote and ineffectual.

He said the decisions that affect the city -- money for a new ring road, the rebuilding of a subway station, renovations for the city's 300th anniversary last May -- are made in Moscow by aides to Putin. "Practically nothing depends on the people here," he said.

On a park bench in the square named for Catherine the Great, two pensioners on the other end of Russia's new economic spectrum -- Grigory Sergeyev and Olga Trofimova -- debated the meaninglessness of it all.

Sergeyev still lives in a communal apartment with his son and his son's family. He was sure none of the candidates would change that. Trofimova did not vote because she was working at a children's sanitorium, supplementing a pension that does not make ends meet.

"Even five years ago, we believed in something," she said. "Now we believe in nothing."

Putin orchestrated the removal of the old governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, by appointing him to the presidential administration before his current term expired. That cleared the way for Matviyenko.

During the campaign, the Kremlin dispatched a cavalcade of senior officials to appear with her. The national television channels, all controlled by the state, lavished attention on her while largely ignoring her opponents. Kotsyubinsky, who was the anchor of two news programs on the city-controlled channel, said his programs were forced off the air when the election began because of their overtly political nature.

"The lack of a free electronic media is the greatest problem in our semi-democratic system," said Amosov, the candidate of the Yabloko party.

Given the Kremlin's backing of Matviyenko, Anna Markova, vice governor of St. Petersburg and the challenger in the runoff, said the low turnout and the none-of-the-above protest votes in St. Petersburg actually represented the vigor of democracy. "That she didn't win the first round -- this is a triumph of democracy," she said.

Leonid Kesselman, a sociologist with the Agency of Social Research who conducted polls leading up to the St. Petersburg election, said low turnout was an inevitable result of elections whose outcomes seem preordained by what he called "the entire ministry of truth." He compared it to Soviet "elections" and told an old Soviet joke.

Leonid Brezhnev, the joke goes, approaches a man carrying a watermelon and asks if he can have it.

"Which one?" the man says.

"How can I choose if you have only one?" Brezhnev asks.

"The same way I chose you," the man replies.