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In Russia vote, focus was on turnout

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A Moscow police car, part of the massive police and military presence called in to the capital on March 2, 2008, the day before Russian elections, is  parked in the Red Square. (Matt Siegel)

A Moscow police car, part of the massive police and military presence called in to the capital on March 2, 2008, the day before Russian elections, is parked in the Red Square. (Matt Siegel)

MOSCOW (JTA) – As Dmitry Medvedev swept to a widely anticipated landslide in Russia’s presidential elections Monday, Russian Jews greeted the outcome with sentiments ranging from overwhelming support for the Medvedev-Putin team to anger and frustration at the lack of real choices in the vote.

Even before the official tally was released, preliminary results from the Central Election Committee showed Medvedev, whom President Vladimir Putin anointed as his successor, taking more than 66 percent of the vote. Medvedev’s closest competitor, Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zhuganov, captured less than 20 percent.

“I wouldn’t call it an election. It’s really important not to use that word,” said Sarah Mendelson, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “An election implies a competitive process that is transparent to the voter. That’s not what this is.”

Under gun-gray skies and amid a massive presence of more than 23,000 police, soldiers and special forces, Muscovites slogged to the polls Sunday in an election widely derided by observers both in the West and domestically for its bias and lack of competition.

The government employed varied means to combat low voter turnout.

Polling stations in Khabarovsk offered voters shopping discount cards, according to a report on state-controlled Channel 1 television.

In Tver, a city of nearly 500,000 at the confluence of the Volga and Tvertsa rivers 100 miles northwest of Moscow, city officials tried a carnival atmosphere. Two fireworks shows cast the banks of the Volga in a red-and-blue glow Saturday night. Banners strung above the streets and posters in nearly every store window stressed to voters how vital their participation was to Russia.

At a local Jewish cultural center run by the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia near the center of Tver, Vladimir Spivak, a community leader and retired military officer, said it was easy to recognize that this election was all about turnout.

Spivak and several other adults at the center said they planned to vote, and for Medvedev.

“Stability is important, and while we have it, it’s better to leave the power be, as it is,” he told JTA.

Spivak noted that vandals twice in the past five years had attacked a Jewish cemetery in the city and that the local government, which he associates with the current regime, provided funds for the cleanup. He also said the government had offered future grants for a Jewish museum.

One of Russia’s chief rabbis, Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, echoed Spivak’s assessment.

“I was extremely surprised to hear how many people were excited to go and cast their vote. Why were they even interested in voting when it was so clear what the outcome would be?” Lazar asked rhetorically. “I think they want to show appreciation for what was done for the Jewish community.”

Lazar declined to say which way he cast his vote.

“I think it’s more important that we voted than who we voted for,” Lazar said. “I think it’s important that the Jewish community shows active involvement in the future of our country.”

Though state media reported high voter turnout, how many voters actually came out could not be independently confirmed due to the absence of election monitors. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which has monitored elections here in the past, refused to send monitors citing restrictions placed on the number allowed and the duration of their stay.

The OSCE refused to monitor Russian parliamentary elections in December for similar reasons.

Golos, the last independent vote-monitoring agency operating in Russia, reported multiple cases of fraud and intimidation throughout the day. In the weeks leading up to the elections, many cases of voter intimidation and coercion were reported in the media here and abroad.

One university student in a Tver coffee shop told JTA he planned to “hide out” all day Sunday to avoid casting his vote. He said he had skipped school one day last week to avoid his professor, who planned to bring absentee ballots to class to ensure that his students voted.

The student asked that his name not be used to avoid retribution.

“I wouldn’t vote for any of these guys,” he said, “but I was told that they’d hit me on my grades on Monday if I didn’t vote this weekend.”

Intimidation aside, those who did vote said they didn’t have much of a choice.

Irina Ivashchenko, a business manager and young mother, said her friends laughed when she told them her grandmother planned to vote for the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

“I’m voting for Medvedev; he’s an educated man, a working man,” Ivaschenko said. “I’m not ecstatic about it, but it’s not like there is another choice.”

Despite a driving snow in Tver that blanketed sidewalks in a brown slush on Sunday, a parade of pop singers and children’s choirs shuffled across a stage in the city’s main square urging citizens to the polls.

Between acts, the emcee told audience members that at the polls they would be entered in a drawing for new cars, home theater systems and motorized scooters.

“Vote for stability! Vote for the future of your children,” he said in an implicit endorsement of Putin’s preferred successor.

Even state media struggled to make this election seem compelling.

Artyem Vosnyov, a young Channel 1 reporter, stood alone in a cavernous polling station and nervously informed the anchor that in his opinion, the excitement for this election was far higher than it was during the Duma elections in December.

The loose clan of opposition groups operating under the Other Russia umbrella organization, which includes such disparate groups as Eduard Limonov’s far-right National Bolsheviks and the leftist youth movement Oborona, called for massive protests across the country Monday to protest election fraud and the repression of the opposition.

Eduard Glezin, Oborona’s acting head since party leader Oleg Kozlovsky was forcibly conscripted into the army more than three months ago, talked about the harassment he and his group faced the night before the election.

Glezin, who is Jewish, detailed cyber attacks on the group’s Web site, arrests and constant surveillance. Before agreeing to talk with a reporter, he asked that nearby cell phones be turned off.

“I know I’m being listened to – at home, in my office,” he said. “Our group members get visits all the time from the FSB,” Russia’s KGB successor organization.

Yet community leaders like Lazar, who is close to the Putin administration, defended the administration and the electoral process. Like many here, Lazar said judging Russia by Western standards is a flawed approach.

“I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve seen elections in the States and I’ve seen elections here; there’s no question that they’re very different,” he said.

But, Lazar added, “The countries are quite different, and the people are quite different.”

Matt Siegel reported from Moscow and Grant Slater from Tver.

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