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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Officials Turn Vote Into One Big Party

For some it was the cheap beer. For others it was the free concert tickets. Yet others said it was a matter of duty. Some even said it was to keep officials honest.

Whatever the reasons, more than 4 million Muscovites went to the polls Sunday to participate in just the fourth presidential election in Russian history -- and there to help them along were cops, lots of cops, decked out in full dress uniform.

"We have to make sure this election is like a celebration," Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov said early in the day.

For many people that is exactly what it was.

"Happy holiday" was how people greeted each other outside of Dvorets Kultury, a withering, two-story concrete building in the industrial Kapotnya district that housed three polling stations. Voters who turned up to cast their ballots in the southeasternmost corner of the capital were met with a crackling PA system blaring out everything from Cossack folk songs to homegrown hip-hop, with a little Alla Pugachyova thrown in to bridge the gap.

A similar scene was played out at many of the capital's 3,000-plus polling stations, and at each one the star of the show was the same.

Like the rest of the country, Moscow voted for President Vladimir Putin by a wide margin. According to official results as of 11 p.m., with 10 percent of the votes counted, Putin had 69 percent, 62 percentage points more than his nearest challenger, Irina Khakamada, who was barely ahead of Communist Nikolai Kharitonov. "Against All" was fourth with 6.5 percent of the vote.

Muscovites exiting the polls Sunday said they voted for Putin for a variety of reasons, ranging from his youthful appearance to his tough stance on drugs and even their own ignorance of the other candidates.

At a polling station on Bolshaya Bronnaya Ulitsa in central Moscow, Alexander, a 23-year-old television producer, said that despite concerns about the new Cabinet, he voted for Putin because he had brought stability to the country. "I don't want anything to change in the next four years," he said as he jumped into a shiny Mitsubishi SUV.

Svetlana Ivanova, a 42-year-old accountant in Kapotnya, said she too voted for Putin, but only because he was the lesser of all evils. "There weren't any other candidates in the election who are capable of running the country," said Ivanova, who voted for Putin in 2000 and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky in 1996.

"In 1996 I thought [Yavlinsky] was a worthy candidate. But if he had run this time, I would not have voted for him," she said, and left it at that.

Irina Khakhalina, 32, also of Kapotnya, said she voted for Putin but only because she gets most of her information from television, a medium the other candidates were essentially barred from taking advantage of. "I didn't even know any of the other candidates on the list," she said.

Others said they had more fundamental reasons to return Putin to the Kremlin. "Putin has the country on the right course. Sure, [Boris] Yeltsin put him in power and was telling him what to do, but you have to remember Yeltsin is a Jew," said Ivan Izmailov, 78, a former Interior Ministry official who has lived in Kapotnya for 60 years. Izmailov hastily added that he has nothing against Jews and that he voted for the former president in 1996.

Yeltsin, who isn't Jewish, was the center of attention at School No. 1130 in the Krylatskoye district, which was home to Polling Station No. 2396, where Yeltsin has voted in every election since 1995.

Natalya Timakova, a very protective member of the Kremlin press service, kept journalists at bay in what appeared to be an attempt to keep Yeltsin from revealing who he voted for -- a very sensitive subject given the mischievous glee with which he publicly snubbed the pro-Putin United Russia party in December's parliamentary elections.

She needn't have worried. As Yeltsin was whisked down a flight of stairs to a waiting limousine, he volunteered, "I approve of Putin's course." He spoke quietly, almost to himself, and was barely audible over the pop music blaring from stereo speakers on the steps.

Yeltsin started to climb into the car, but as if realizing he was missing a rare chance at the spotlight he suddenly reversed course, walked back up the stairs and embraced the school's beaming director, Natalya Bushkina. Sunday was the birthday of Yeltsin's wife Naina, and Bushkina had presented her with a giant bouquet of flowers. Bushkina said she had also voted for Putin.

An hour after Yeltsin and the presidential press service left, candidate Sergei Mironov showed up to cast his vote with 10 black-clad men in tow. How he voted was confidential, Mironov said, adding only that he "made the right choice." Mironov has said he entered the race in order to help Putin win.

Over at Polling Station No. 2304 in the southwest district of Yasenevo, Anna Volodkina echoed the sentiments of several of her fellow retirees, saying she voted for Putin because he has increased pensions. She said she didn't think much of the other candidates, noting Khakamada's Japanese heritage.

"She is not Russian," Volodkina said.

Downtown, at station No. 185 in the central Tverskaya district, 18-year-old Nikolai said he was happy to vote for Putin, despite being admonished by his mother for succumbing to herd mentality. "I like how things are. I am happy, so why would I vote for change?" he said.

His mother, Maria, who voted for Khakamada, said Nikolai was too young to know what he was talking about.

But Khakamada wasn't. She cast her vote -- unlike Mironov, presumably for herself -- at a polling station near Sokol in northern Moscow, where she is officially registered. The weary-looking candidate, however, said the results had already been determined.

Andrei, a 39-year-old taxi driver in Kapotnya, said he felt the same way. He wouldn't say how he voted, but he did say that it was "his duty" to make sure he didn't contribute to a fraudulent election. "I vote in every election, but only because I don't want someone filling out my ballot for me," he said. "It's all decided beforehand anyway."

Back in Yasenevo, circus worker Larisa Kharitonova voiced similar disgust with the electoral process, but unlike Andrei she was proud of who she voted for -- her husband's namesake.

"I voted for Kharitonov ... and not just because my husband's name is Kharitonov," she said.

"[Many vote for Putin] because the feeling of serfdom is very well developed in this country," Kharitonova said. "Look, there was a brazen advertising campaign. People were brainwashed for the past two months. The outcome was predetermined. They were left with no choice. This is disgusting. I came to vote so that my ballot is not used otherwise."

The debate on the merits of the electoral process was not limited to those of voting age. "If there was really a choice in Russia, then these elections would be canceled," said Marina, a 15-year-old self-described anarchist with spiked hair and torn jeans. "In our country there is only a perception of democracy, not the real thing," she said near a polling station on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. "If I were old enough to vote, I wouldn't go anyway because that jerk Putin will be 'elected,' regardless."

Marina's boyfriend, 17-year-old fellow anarchist Levan, agreed.

"There are no elections. The only thing for those who want an alternative to Putin is to vote against all -- but even then you're helping him by making the turnout go up," Levan said. "The most worrisome thing is that Putin's a cop," he said. "He's created a government of cops that answers to one person only. It's like I heard one journalist say: 'The constitution only guarantees as much as the conscience of the guarantor of the constitution does.'"

Some people, however, were less interested in debating the merits of democracy than in getting something from it. One radio station's effort to capitalize on that urge may have gotten it in trouble.

The station, Dinamit FM, had been aggressively marketing the upcoming "Bomb of the Year -- 2004" concert at Olimpiisky Stadium by promising free tickets to young people who turned out to vote. But Valentin Gorbunov, head of the Moscow City Elections Commission, said Sunday that he had received so many complaints from people being refused tickets that he complained to the city prosecutor's office and the Culture and Press Ministry.

"Young people are going to the polling stations and when they don't get the promised tickets they decline to participate in the vote," Gorbunov said. He called the advertisements "a political campaign aimed at discrediting the electoral system."

Sergei Arkhipov, president of the Russkaya Mediagruppa, which owns Dinamit FM, defended the ticket giveaway, saying the aim of the promotion was to gauge how socially active the radio station's listeners were. He told RIA-Novosti that the station would not apologize to those who didn't get a ticket because all of them had been snapped up by 8:15 a.m., 15 minutes after the polls opened.

Other ways of getting out the vote were more official -- and direct. In keeping with a Soviet tradition to boost voter turnout, polling stations throughout the city offered snacks and beverages, which might help explain why so many people tried to vote drunk.

Police spokesman Kirill Mazurin wouldn't say exactly how many "problem voters" officers encountered Sunday, but he did say it was an issue that had to be dealt with.

"Policemen told heavily inebriated voters to first sober up and then fulfill their civic duty," Mazurin told Interfax.

Staff Writers Maria Levitov, Anatoly Medetsky, Alex Nicholson, Kevin O'Flynn, Simon Ostrovsky and Lyuba Pronina contributed to this report.