NY Times: Strong Putin gets high approval ratings in Russia


Richard Moore

³There is some hope for us now,² said Nina Aksyonova, 68, a Nizhny Novgorod 
resident, explaining Mr. Putin¹s popularity.


February 24, 2008
Putin¹s Iron Grip on Russia Suffocates His Opponents

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia ‹ Shortly before parliamentary elections in December, 
foremen fanned out across the sprawling GAZ vehicle factory here, pulling aside 
assembly-line workers and giving them an order: vote for President Vladimir V. 
Putin¹s party or else. They were instructed to phone in after they left their 
polling places. Names would be tallied, defiance punished.

The city¹s children, too, were pressed into service. At schools, teachers gave 
them pamphlets promoting ³Putin¹s Plan² and told them to lobby their parents. 
Some were threatened with bad grades if they failed to attend ³Children¹s 
Referendums² at polling places, a ploy to ensure that their parents would show 
up and vote for the ruling party.

Around the same time, volunteers for an opposition party here, the Union of 
Right Forces, received hundreds of calls at all hours, warning them to stop 
working for their candidates. Otherwise, you will be hurt, the callers said, 
along with the rest of your family.

Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of 
the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on 
democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the 
economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important 
industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security
services to carry out the Kremlin¹s wishes.

While those tactics have been widely recognized, they have been especially 
heavy-handed at the local level, in far-flung places like Nizhny Novgorod, 250 
miles east of Moscow. On the eve of a presidential election in Russia that was 
all but fixed in December, when Mr. Putin selected his close aide, Dmitri A. 
Medvedev, as his successor, Nizhny Novgorod stands as a stark example of how Mr.
Putin and his followers have established what is essentially a one-party state.

Mr. Putin¹s Russia is not the Soviet Union. For most Russians, life is freer now
than it was in the old days. Criticism of the Kremlin is tolerated, as long as 
it is not done in any broadly organized way, and access to the Internet is 
unfettered. The economy, with its abundance of consumer goods and heady rate of 
growth, bears little resemblance to the one under Communism.

Still, as was made plain in dozens of interviews with political leaders, 
officials and residents of Nizhny Novgorod over several weeks, a new autocracy 
now governs Russia. Behind a facade of democracy lies a centralized authority 
that has deployed a nationwide cadre of loyalists that is not reluctant to swat 
down those who challenge the ruling party. Fearing such retribution, many of the
people interviewed for this article asked not to be identified.

The government has closed newspapers in St. Petersburg and raided political 
party offices in Siberia. It was hardly unusual when in Samara, in the nation¹s 
center, organized crime officers charged an opposition campaign official with 
financial crimes shortly before the December parliamentary elections and froze 
the party¹s bank accounts.

Here in this historic region on the Volga River, Mr. Putin¹s allies now control 
nearly all the offices, and elections have become a formality. And that is just 
as it should be, they said.

³In my opinion, at a certain stage, like now, it is not only useful, it is even 
necessary ‹ we are tired of democratic twists and turns,² said the leader of Mr.
Putin¹s party in Nizhny Novgorod, Sergei G. Nekrasov. ³It may sound 
sacrilegious, but I would propose to suspend all this election business for the 
time being, at least for managerial positions.²

Mr. Putin, who intends to remain in power by becoming prime minister under Mr. 
Medvedev, has in recent days declared that Russia has a healthy democracy, a 
renewed sense of national pride and a prominent role on the world stage. His 
supporters in Nizhny Novgorod point to his high approval ratings as evidence 
that his policies work.

A refrain often heard here and across Russia is that the distressing years right
after Communism¹s collapse left people craving stability and a sturdy economy 
far more than Western-style democracy. These days, they care little if elections
are basically uncontested as long as a strong leader is in charge.

³There is some hope for us now,² said Nina Aksyonova, 68, a Nizhny Novgorod 
resident, explaining Mr. Putin¹s popularity.

Propaganda Onslaught

Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial center with 1.3 million residents, was known as 
Gorky during the Communist era, when it was closed to foreigners and was home to
the dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, who was sent into internal exile 
here. After the Soviet Union¹s collapse, it became a hotbed of liberalism, 
earning international recognition after officials sought to jettison the old 
sclerotic economic structure and embrace what were considered far-sighted 
political reforms.

Today, authority flows from the Kremlin to a regional governor appointed by Mr. 
Putin, who abolished the election of governors in Russia in 2004. The governor, 
Valery P. Shantsev, was brought in from Moscow and is charged with running the 
region and ensuring that Mr. Putin¹s party, United Russia, wins elections. The 
lines between the government and party have become so blurred that on election 
day in December, regional election commission members wore large United Russia 

Boris Y. Nemtsov became a political star in Russia and the West as governor of 
Nizhny Novgorod and deputy prime minister in the 1990s, but in recent months he 
and his opposition party have taken a battering here. Regional and national 
television stations, controlled by the Kremlin and its surrogates, have 
repeatedly attacked him ‹ calling him everything from a corrupt bureaucrat to a 

³His career has been accompanied by scandals,² went a typical report on the 
popular Channel One right before the December elections. ³It was the elderly who
were the first to feel the results of the work of Nemtsov¹s government on their 
purses. Pensions dropped to the lowest level in all Russia¹s history. Boris 
Nemtsov used to gather the press just to say that he did not care who the 
pensioners, deprived of money, would vote for. According to the plans of young 
reformers, only the strongest were supposed to live until the next century.²

Meanwhile, a different kind of propaganda war was being waged on the streets. 
Russia has relatively conservative attitudes toward homosexuality, and all 
autumn long Nizhny Novgorod was blanketed with tens of thousands of leaflets 
saying that Mr. Nemtsov¹s liberal, pro-Western opposition party, the Union of 
Right Forces, ardently favored gay rights and employed canvassers with AIDS. 
Neither was true.

The leaflets often included the name and phone number of a leader of the party¹s
regional candidate slate, Andrei Osipenko. Some had condoms attached and 
announced offers to send supporters to a gay-pride event in Amsterdam.

Intimidation and violence came next. Businesses cut off donations after 
receiving threats from government officials, said Sergei Veltishchev, an 
organizer for the Union of Right Forces. Someone obtained the confidential list 
of party members ‹ the party officials say they suspect that it was the security
services ‹ and hundreds of menacing phone calls were made to volunteers, saying 
they or their families would be hurt if they helped the party.

The party was refused advertising space on everything from billboards to 
newspapers to television. When Mr. Nemtsov tried to campaign in Nizhny Novgorod 
in the fall, no one would rent him a hall. In November, the party headquarters 
were ransacked and spray-painted with profanities and graffiti that called it 
the ³Party of Gays.²

A few weeks before the elections, Mr. Osipenko gave up, renouncing his party at 
a news conference that was heavily covered on state-controlled television and 
had the feel of the Stalinist-era public confessions that followed show trials. 
Other party officials did the same.

The party¹s remaining candidates in the region were too fearful to campaign.

³You begin to think: you have a family, you have a business, and you may value 
this significantly more than a political career,² said Artur Nazarenko, an 
official with the Union of Right Forces. The party, once a regional power, 
received only 1 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, both in the 
Nizhny Novgorod region and nationally.

Other opposition figures in Nizhny Novgorod have been treated just as harshly 
over the past year. Leaders of a loose coalition called Other Russia have been 
repeatedly arrested, with some charged with inciting terrorism. When the group 
held a demonstration here last March, local television stations tried to scare 
away the public, labeling the event a gathering of either racist skinheads or 
gay rights advocates.

³Now about the so-called opposition, though there is a big doubt that it exists 
at all in the country,² an announcer asserted on the Seti NN channel. ³They have
been acting in violation of the law.²

The mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, Vadim Bulavinov, a United Russia leader, said the 
opposition had failed because it was poorly organized.

³If an organization is weak because people do not want to work for it or to help
it, why should United Russia be blamed for that?² the mayor said. ³I think that 
if the opposition parties want to find out who is guilty, they need to look in 
the mirror.²

Attacks on the Press

With the opposition suppressed in the months before the December elections, 
anti-Kremlin activism coalesced around independent newspapers and nonprofit 
groups, making them another target of the security forces.

In August, police officers broke down the door to the local offices of Novaya 
Gazeta, an opposition paper that had criticized Governor Shantsev and Mayor 
Bulavinov. Investigators accused the paper of using unlicensed software and 
hauled away its computers, shutting down the paper until after the elections.

Prosecutors also closed or prevented the distribution of two other regional 
newspapers, Leninskaya Smena and Trud, and conducted aggressive inquiries into 
the finances of several others. ³It is a demonstration of force: ŒIf you behave 
wrong, we will punish you,¹ ² said Zakhar Prilepin, Novaya Gazeta¹s editor in 
Nizhny Novgorod.

The regional prosecutor, Valery Maksimenko, did not respond to several requests 
for comment.

On the day of the Novaya Gazeta raid, the police removed computers from the 
offices of the Foundation to Support Tolerance, a nonprofit group that has been 
harassed for four years after criticizing the Kremlin and the war in Chechnya.

The authorities seem especially distrustful of the foundation because it 
receives money from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American nonprofit 
group financed by the United States government. The Kremlin has blamed Western 
pro-democracy groups for fomenting popular uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and 
elsewhere in recent years, and vowed that that sort of thing would never happen 
in Russia.

The Federal Security Service, known by its initials in Russian, F.S.B., has 
interrogated the tolerance foundation¹s workers, family members and friends. Its
leaders, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky and Oksana Chelysheva, have received death 
threats. And as part of a smear campaign, the Volga regional television station 
showed Russian soldiers being beheaded in Chechnya and said the group had 
justified such killings.

In October, when the foundation held a memorial for Anna Politkovskaya, an 
opposition journalist killed in 2006, several foreign human rights advocates 
were arrested in Nizhny Novgorod. The police again raided the foundation¹s 
offices, and the authorities froze its bank accounts, saying it supported 

³The ruling elite nowadays has no ideology,² Ms. Chelysheva said. ³Their only 
aim is to obtain as much power as possible, to keep this power, by whatever 
means, and to profiteer off this power. In this respect, these people, who are 
so cynical, are much more dangerous than was the Communist Party of the 

The group had been called the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, and it focused
on exposing what it deemed human rights violations in the Russian war against 
separatists in Chechnya. But it ran afoul of the Kremlin, which deemed its work 
as little more than collaboration with the enemy.

Prosecutors accused the society of extremism and shut it down after it 
republished letters from two Chechen separatist leaders. Mr. Dmitriyevsky was 
convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and received a suspended prison sentence.

A Push for Legitimacy

While the Kremlin has succeeded in discrediting and stifling opposition parties,
it has nonetheless faced a predicament of its own making. Elections draw little 
public interest now that they are essentially noncompetitive, and leaders of the
governing party fear a low turnout. If relatively few people vote, then Mr. 
Putin¹s claim to a widespread following could be called into question. So the 
authorities have also focused their energies on getting people to the polls.

Though Mayor Bulavinov and Mr. Nekrasov, the United Russia leader, said 
residents were not compelled to support the party, numerous interviews in the 
city and a review of municipal records indicated otherwise. It was clear that 
strong-arm tactics were common before the December elections in Nizhny Novgorod,
and the opposition said it expected them again before the presidential election 
on March 2.

At the GAZ vehicle factory, known for its Volga sedan, workers were not only 
ordered to vote and then phone in from the polling place afterward: some had to 
obtain absentee ballots and fill them out in front of their bosses.

³If you don¹t vote for United Russia, it will be very bad,² a worker named 
Aleksandr recalled, characterizing the pressure on the rank and file.

The coercive voter drive clearly had the desired effect, in the Kremlin¹s view 
at least. After the election, the GAZ president, Nikolai Pugin, who is a senior 
United Russia leader and a regional lawmaker, announced that nearly 80 percent 
of his workers had voted, far higher than the city¹s overall turnout, 51 
percent. The Kremlin rewarded Mr. Pugin by making one of his workers a deputy in
the federal Parliament.

Asked this month about the high turnout, Mr. Pugin said in an interview that his
workers had voted freely. ³People see positive changes and as a result, they 
express their opinion,² he said.

The public schools also were caught up in the campaign. Parents at some schools 
were ordered to attend mandatory meetings with representatives of United Russia,
and the children were used to drag their parents to the polls.

³It was the same scenario at all the schools,² a teacher said. ³And it was all 
from the city¹s leadership. The school directors were given instructions, and 
they carried them out.²

Regional officials were vigilant about developments at local universities, 
particularly two of the largest, Lobachevsky State and Volga State. Students 
said they were warned not to join marches sponsored by the Other Russia 
coalition. And they said that before the elections, administrators issued a 
threat: if you do not vote for the ruling party, you will be evicted from your 

³Everyone was frightened, and our group, in full, went and voted, like a line of
soldiers marching,² said a Volga State student.

Administrators at both universities said the students¹ statements about pressure
were false.

Yet it did not stop with the voting.

Shortly after election day, several hundred Lobachevsky students were told that 
they were being bused to Moscow, but the university would not say why. When they
were let off near Red Square, they found themselves among a huge throng of 

It was only then that they realized that they had become unwilling participants 
in a rally sponsored by Nashi, a fiercely pro-Kremlin youth group, to celebrate 
United Russia¹s triumph and to congratulate Mr. Putin.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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