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Russian Jews cast protest votes

Election monitors at the Independent Press Center in Moscow stream voter complaints from around Russia, Dec. 2, 2007. (Matt Siegel)

Election monitors at the Independent Press Center in Moscow stream voter complaints from around Russia, Dec. 2, 2007. (Matt Siegel)

MOSCOW (JTA) – Although largely absent from the opposition rallies preceding this week’s parliamentary elections, some Jews chose the polls to quietly register their discontent with what they see as a period of eroding freedoms across Russia.

Millions defied chilling winds and steady snowfall to vote Sunday in elections seen largely as a referendum on the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And while Putin’s United Russia party easily rode a wave of oil money to a landslide victory – returns gave his United Russia party 64 percent of the vote – some Jews opted for parties that had no realistic chance of gaining seats in the lower house of parliament, the Duma.

Inna Ioffe, a 23-year-old manager in Nizhniy Novgorod, said she voted for the liberal SPS party because of Putin’s support for terrorist groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

“United Russia is the party of the president, and the president supports Hamas and Hezbollah,” she said. “I can’t vote for the people who support people who kill my people.”

Moscow’s Hillel director, Dimitry Maryasis, voted for the small Civilian Power party of Mikhail Barshchevsky knowing full well that the party, whose symbol is a sunflower in an outstretched hand, had little hope of placing in elections dominated by aggressive anti-western rhetoric.

Although Sunday’s vote was ostensibly for seats in the parliament, a massive advertising campaign across Moscow featuring signs such as “Moscow Chooses Putin” and “Putin’s Plan is a Victory for Russia” made it clear that more was at stake than who sits in the rubber-stamp legislature.

These mixed messages appeared to have achieved their goal, as some people seemed confused when asked for whom they were voting.

A woman milling around a Jewish community center in Moscow said she was voting for Putin before she quickly corrected herself and said, “for United Russia.”

In an otherwise predictable season, surprisingly some Jews said they were turning to the Communists as an outlet for their protest vote.

According to a recent poll by the independent Levada polling center in Moscow, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or KPRF, was likely to be the only party other than United Russia to clear the 7 percent threshold needed to gain Duma representation.

With the 98 percent of the votes counted, the Communists were in second with 11.6 percent of the vote.

However, among the 11 parties running, two others loyal to the Kremlin appeared to cross the 7 percent threshold. The Liberal Democratic Party, led by ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, reportedly received 8.2 percent, and Fair Russia, a party whose creation was approved by Putin, had 7.6 percent.

Inna Frenkel, a 23-year-old democracy activist, said she wouldn’t have voted for the Communists if she had more choices.

“Last time I voted for Yabloko and they didn’t help,” she said. “I didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

In the quavering monotone of a mourner, Frenkel described what she sees as Putin’s monopoly on the organs of Russian society. She thought it better to go with the KPRF, if only as a bulwark against United Russia.

“Roughly speaking, I don’t want to have a one-party system in the country, and a monopoly in both the political and economic sphere,” she said. “I want to be able to make sure that democracy works in the country, I guess.”

It wasn’t just disaffected youth who were drawn to the KPRF, however. Even some who remembered the Soviet Union said they chose the enemy they know over the unpredictable future of a virtually unconstrained Putin.

Vladimir Moiseivich Tsentsiper, 70, recalled how hard life was under the communists. In 1991 he helped defend the Russian White House for Boris Yeltsin against a failed communist coup. But his disgust with the politics of the current regime overcame the weight of distant memories.

“I voted for them even though my parents were repressed, Tsentsiper told JTA. “I was born in 1937 in very difficult conditions. I’ve never voted for communists before in my life.”

Tsentsiper, believing that the Communist Party might represent the only opposition voice that will be heard, added: “I hope, and this is a very weak hope, that the KPRF can afford some kind of resistance to United Russia.”

Reports of arrests and harassment of election monitors across the country appeared to validate the cynicism expressed by those who spoke with JTA.

At a news conference Sunday in Moscow, the independent election-monitoring group Golos lashed out at the government for a string of what it said were politically motivated arrests of its monitors.

“We were astonished,” said project manager Tatyana Bogdanova, “because we haven’t expected this kind of harassment or administrative pressure. In fact we’ve never experienced this before.”

Golos, which is registered in the Russian Federation and has been conducting monitoring since 2000, has found itself in the uneasy position of opposing the Kremlin as it sought the type of massive victory needed to grant Putin the mandate he seeks.

Bogdanova echoed a point brought up by many angry voters: If Putin is so genuinely popular, why does he need to use such heavy-handed techniques in dealing with a tiny and marginalized opposition?

“I think it’s something that deals with their inferiority complex and overaction,” said Mikhail Masterovoy of Moscow. He voted for SPS.

 

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