Russian Elections Not Expected To Settle Much

Russians vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday, but there's no doubt the ruling United Russia Party will get the most votes. With Vladimir Putin ruling Russia for more than a decade now, the political opposition has been emasculated. Yet Kremlin officials are worried about the size of United Russia's majority, and the growing numbers of Russians voicing dissatisfaction with corruption and a sluggish economy. Host Scott Simon speaks with reporter Julia Loffe in Moscow.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Russia holds elections for the national parliament - the Duma - tomorrow. The ruling party is expected to win a majority, but the latest opinion poll suggest it won't be as big as last time.

We've called reporter Julia Ioffe in Moscow and joins us on the line. Thanks very much for being with us.

JULIA IOFFE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: It's been 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. What do elections mean in Russia now?

IOFFE: You know, they don't really mean all that much, Scott. Most Russians themselves don't believe that they mean anything either. They think that most of them will be falsified, that there would be a lot of violations, and that the people in charge, the people in the Kremlin, will get for themselves the results they need.

SIMON: Is that why United Russia is, judging by the polls at least, losing some popularity?

IOFFE: Yeah. I mean when you're in power for about a decade and when on your watch corruption just flourishes like mad, when the police is out of control and you don't trust them to protect you, you believe that they're actually against you, there's not much faith that, you know, they have done what they've promised or that they will do what they promised.

SIMON: When you say the results are going to be falsified, what are you looking at? What do you know that leads you to say that?

IOFFE: Past elections where, for example, the summer there was a municipal election in St. Petersburg. Somebody went to vote, he put his ballot in the wrong ballot box, so they had to unseal it. And even though he was the first person to vote there there were already three ballots in the ballot box. Or busing people around different polling stations, having them vote. Russians themselves will quote Stalin, who said, it's not who casts the votes. It's who counts the ballots.

SIMON: There was a court case this week, wasn't there?

IOFFE: Yes. The one independent credible Russian NGO that has been monitoring Russian elections for the past decade, which as been an invaluable source for both Russian and foreign journalists, has come under attack and pressure. The director of Golos, of this organization has been detained overnight at Sheremetyevo Airport and her laptop has been taken away. Three Duma deputies wrote a letter to the prosecutor general saying that this organization is effectively a shell party for the State Department and the CIA to influence internal Russian politics. They got that case very quickly to court and within about a day Golos was fined about $1,000 and it's kind of still unclear what's going to happen to them, if the organization is going to be shut down or not. If it is shut down it's going to be a tragedy because they really are the only people who here, who are not foreign, who are not, you know, the European Commission who understand the process, who monitor carefully and who have the credibility to do so.

SIMON: Are people enthusiastic? Are any people enthusiastic about at least the window of opportunity elections might represent?

IOFFE: The educated elite at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been talking about what to do with these elections. Last time around they thought it was pointless so they didn't want to participate in all. I've heard a lot of people talking about going out to vote just to vote for somebody, even if the vote is falsified in the end just as a way to exercise their right and to at least participate.

SIMON: Prime Minister Putin isn't on the ballot, but how does he figure into the elections we're going to see tomorrow?

IOFFE: The United Russia Party was created to support him but he's never been a member of the party, which I think says a lot about Russians relation to politics, that they fear it's a kind of dirty thing and that he's above it. He's been heavily campaigning for United Russia in the last few weeks. What's interesting is that it seems to work because United Russians poll numbers might be slipping. People don't really trust them. People called him the party of crooks and thieves - its become this predominant name here. At the same time, Putin's ratings are still around 67 percent, which is really healthy and enviable.

SIMON: Well, help us understand how people might have doubts about the system but like the guy who is perceived to be at the center of it.

IOFFE: Well, because he's drawn a picture of inevitability around himself. You know, if not him, then who? And that's a very potent argument, especially when you've worked to clear the field of any potential rivals.

SIMON: Julia Ioffe, Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy magazine and The New Yorker. Thanks so much.

IOFFE: Thank you, Scott.

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