Vladimir Putin looks set to cruise to another landslide victory in the upcoming presidential election in Russia on March 18. But even for Putin – who has just been polled with a 71% approval rating – there are places where the going is tough. Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is one of those places.
On a cold, snowy day police cars line the roads, extra security measures with Putin in town. But on the streets most people barely seem to take notice, going about their business in the freezing temperatures, many apathetic about the election being advertised on billboards across town.
Irina, who declined to give her last name, said she wasn’t even sure whether she would go to the polls at all.
“Most of the people here think that the choice has already been made for them a long time ago. So many people just don’t want to go and vote,” she said as she exited the subway station near Novosibirsk’s Lenin Square.
’An opposition city’
Novosibirsk is a university town and many of the younger people also seemed less than enthusiastic about the upcoming vote.
“Putin is going to win… It’s all the same every time,” said 19-year-old Yulia Ivanova, adding that many in her generation are less than thrilled with their government in Moscow.
“I think Novosibirsk is an opposition city,” she said. “There are a lot of young people here, who dived deep inside the internet and follow Navalny, and tons of young people go to protests.”
Novosibirsk regularly boasts high turnout during Russia-wide protests organized by Putin’s arch nemesis, the opposition figure Alexey Navalny, who has been barred from running in the upcoming elections because of an embezzlement conviction that he claims is politically motivated.
At the headquarters of the Navalny movement in Novosibirsk the man in charge says opposition to Moscow is ingrained in the people from this part of Siberia, many coming from families exiled from other parts of the country for their political views during Soviet times.
“Novosibirsk is a tough place for Putin,” said Andrey Gladchenko who runs Navalny’s headquarters in the city. “It’s a city of Siberian exiles who always had their own opinion, different from what the authorities think. It’s always been like that, even 50 or 100 years ago. It’s quite a free city, it has the Academic Town, the breeding ground for democracy. So it’s not too easy for him here. Historically, Novosibirsk has low turnout and shown poor results in terms of voting for government candidates.”
Meanwhile, in the Academic Town, Putin was handing out medals to Russian scientists for innovative developments in their respective fields. He also called for the development of international research centers in Russia while meeting with his council for science and education.
“All those who show successful results should have an opportunity to build a research career, implement large-scale scientific projects, have a long-term horizon for planning their activities,” Putin said, according to the state-run Tass news agency.
Unlike US or European campaigns
Most of the President’s public appearances these days are a mix of governing and campaigning.
Many meetings with regional officials, but always with a lot of high-profile media coverage showing a high-energy president getting things done.
But the run-up to Russia’s presidential election on March 18 bears little if any resemblance to high-profile races in the United States or Europe.
There’s almost no TV advertising, very few pure campaign rallies, and while there are billboards across Russia advertising the election itself, most of the candidates, including Putin are hardly visible in public places.
On Thursday, Russia’s election commission finished the registration of presidential candidates, narrowing the field down to eight.
According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Putin would garner more than 71% of the vote among that field; the closest contender, the Communist Pavel Grudinin, would get less than 7%.
While the lopsided results seem to curb the enthusiasm in Novosibirsk, Putin certainly also has strong support here as well, running on a platform of continuity and stability.
“Putin and only Putin, this is my candidate. No one else,” Oksana – who also did not want to give her last name – told us while walking through the chilly streets of central Novosibirsk.
“I expect improvement in our lives. Because there is going to be stability, good salaries, good benefits, people will be treated right.”