Today, Russia votes for its next president. The suspense isn't killing Michael Idov, who's there working on an article about the country for The New Republic, and has filed this report from Moscow.
Hundreds of roadside billboards along Moscow’s main thoroughfares are devoted to the big day, yet none is from a specific candidate or party, and their design is unvarying: a flat reminder, against the backdrop of the federal tricolor and the two-headed eagle, that “March 2 is the Presidential Election.” The same image graces every municipal-controlled surface, including the backs of Moscow Metro tickets. It doesn’t endorse Dmitri Medvedev, and it doesn’t have to. At this point, the flag and the eagle do it naturally. He is the only candidate with free access to the imperial imagery. Or, as the man put it when refusing to debate his opponents on TV, “I have no need to prove my superiority in a verbal battle with those who never stood at the helm of the state apparatus.”
The question is not whether Medvedev wins; Moscow bookmakers, a gambling friend tells me, don’t even accept bets on the election’s outcome. They do an over-under on his getting 71 percent of the vote instead. The only question seemingly bothering Russia’s bureaucrats today is turnout. In last December’s parliamentary elections here, returns were fudged so much that official ballot counts from all districts, when mapped on a graph, hilariously spike on every round number (70, 80, 90)--a distribution pattern possible only with furious rounding-up. In that election, though, each district’s shenanigans had a tangible purpose: the higher the figures, the more delegates the local chapter of United Russia got to send to the Duma. This time, the goal is simply to avoid the embarrassment of broadcasting Russia’s electoral apathy to the world.
The methods have been fine-tuned, too: the focus appears to have shifted from outright ballot-stuffing to making people vote by any means necessary. In Novosibirsk, the authorities are letting loose with both the carrot (free blini for everyone!) and the stick (politician Andrei Przhezdomsky alleges that a director of a factory there is holding all employees’ February salaries until they vote). The head administrator of a Moscow hospital told me that he’s been entrusted with making sure “all doctors and all patients” vote today, a tableau I have trouble visualizing. In the provinces, the elections are being treated as a kind of forced holiday. In Kamchatka, folk dancers performed in front of the precinct. In Samara, people received football-style scarves for voting.
In another bid to drum up excitement, state TV is set to cover the evening’s returns with a dash of American style: giant screens are set up at the Central Electoral Committee HQ to flash figures from the nation’s 6,000 precincts (and a few hundred makeshift precincts abroad). In lieu of any mystery about the winner, however, the networks are left to wring out whatever suspense they can from the turnout question. This morning, Channel One cut into a bio of Soviet-era fashion designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev (he’s met Pierre Cardin! Personally!) to announce that “16 percent of the electorate has voted so far.” Gazprom-owned NTV is running similar turnout updates at the bottom of the screen. It looks about as exciting as seeing one half of a sports score.
So far, among my friends, their friends, and friends of their friends (most, but not all, admittedly being what Mark Penn would call “latte-drinking” types), I haven’t found a single person planning to vote today. A few briefly considered voting for the Communists--the only semi-credible opposition--in a show of defiance, but in the end no one bothered to go through with it. (It’s understandably hard to work up any enthusiasm for the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, as this is his fourth presidential campaign). Moscow voting figures may be especially low, I’m told, because people have to vote where they’re registered--which isn’t necessarily where they live; in the context of Russia’s insanely sprawling capital, for thousands of voters this means a ten-mile crosstown trip to the booth, with no particular payoff in the end.
Many, surprisingly many, cope with Medvedev’s preordained victory via textbook Freudian transference, by developing a sporting obsession with the American Democratic primaries. “We’re watching it like a Latin American soap opera,” explains Alexander Garros, the culture editor of Expert, a magazine that manages to be both a clone of The Economist and affiliated with the Kremlin. “What did Juan Alberto say to Maria Luisa today? That sort of thing.” Later in the week, I will be talking to a group of Muscovites I found breathlessly rooting for Barack Obama.
At noon, there are perhaps eight voters milling about Precinct 2074, inside the bizarre, Pompidou-like headquarters of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Hours earlier, President Putin, the most comfortably walking lame duck in history, voted here, dunking his ballot into a box rendered invisible by a simultaneous explosion of a hundred flashes. It looked, appropriately enough, as though the box itself became an orb of white-hot light--aglow with the will of the people, or something--as Putin made communion with it. Now the press is gone, and uniformed militia men plainly outnumber the voters. Two gorgeous girls, their ennui Ghost World-grade, guard a spread of free fish sandwiches meant to entice the electorate. It seems a bit early in the day for smoked fish, but there isn’t much choice.