Discontent Over Russia's Ruling Party At A Simmer

Viktor Kondrashov, an opposition candidate from the Communist Party i i

Viktor Kondrashov, an opposition candidate from the Communist Party, won a stunning victory over Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party in the mayor's race in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Viktor Kondrashov, an opposition candidate from the Communist Party

Viktor Kondrashov, an opposition candidate from the Communist Party, won a stunning victory over Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party in the mayor's race in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.

David Greene/NPR

It's not easy being the political opposition in Russia. Yet, there are signs of growing discontent with the ruling party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Opponents have staged a number of anti-government rallies. And in March elections, while Putin's party cleaned house, support was weaker than usual. The most glaring example was in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, with a population of a half-million people.

The prime minister's party lost the mayor's race — in a landslide – to an opposition candidate from the Communist Party, a man named Viktor Kondrashov.

"We were all in shock," said Oksana Khamindarova, a Irkutsk resident who backed the winner. She owns her own business in the city and was watching a small Communist parade recently with her young daughter.

"I do go to elections," Khamindarova said. "But what's the point? They always have everything decided."

This time, she said, "we were mistaken." But then came her warning: Don't go thinking that Russia's about to be some true democracy

Almost everywhere in this country, Putin's United Russia party is the majority. It runs local and regional governments and is seen as controlling elections. But for now, just not here.

Frustration Has Limits

This city has a frontier feel — it's near the mountains, it's had a gold rush – and, Siberia being Siberia, the city was historically a hub for Russian exiles. This had its benefits for the community, since many of those cast off were intellectuals.

The new mayor still seems surprised to be in the job.

Oksana Khamindarova, standing with her daughter, Alesei, is a small-business owner in Irkutsk. i i

Oksana Khamindarova, standing with her daughter, Alesei, is a small-business owner in Irkutsk. She voted for Kondrashov for mayor, but was shocked when he actually defeated the ruling party's candidate. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Oksana Khamindarova, standing with her daughter, Alesei, is a small-business owner in Irkutsk.

Oksana Khamindarova, standing with her daughter, Alesei, is a small-business owner in Irkutsk. She voted for Kondrashov for mayor, but was shocked when he actually defeated the ruling party's candidate.

David Greene/NPR

"This never happened in the history of Irkutsk — so many cars at polling stations," Kondrashov said. "I managed to stir up this part of the population, people who never went to elections, who were indifferent."

And no doubt, voters — including 72-year-old pensioner Raisa Ivanovna – were sending a message.

When it comes to voting, "we have our own opinions," she said. Ivanovna was angry that Putin and his party sent a candidate from out of town to run for mayor. "We wanted to vote for our native person."

And yet, her frustration with the prime minister only goes so far. "We believe in him," she said. "Putin in his position suits us."

This mindset, apparent across Irkutsk, could explain why the anti-Putin protests in Russia have come in fits and starts, never truly catching fire. If there's a growing desire to show electoral independence, there's not yet a groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

That’s not surprising to Irina Abdulova, who studies public opinion at the Center for Independent Social Studies in Irkutsk. Abdulova said in general, Russians have little confidence in institutions — from the police and military to the national legislature, the State Duma.

"Only two institutions demonstrate a large degree of popularity," she said. "The Russian Orthodox Church and the prime minister. Not prime minister as a position — but as a personality: Putin."

Putin, she pointed out, usually enjoys a near 80-percent approval rating. And, Abdulova said, "there's a feeling he's capable of solving problems." But he also benefits from Russia's state-run media. As Abdolova put it, "if you watch the news in Russia, everything seems just fine."

'There Are Risks'

Kondrashov, for his part, said as a wealthy and well-connected developer, he expected Putin's party to try to intimidate him.

"There are risks," he said. "I'm simply going to observe the law, not going to steal, not going to take bribes."

He said he had no plans to join the ruling party if Putin came along with an invitation. But, he added, if it's in the city's best interest? Yes, he'd join the team.

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