Oct 06, 2006

Chuvash: Apathy and Clean Streets

Several candidates are running for seats in the regional legislature. Yet there are few doubts the pro-Kremlin United Russia party will dominate in what looks to be a precursor to next year's State Duma elections.

CHEBOKSARY -- The great-granddaughter of a famous Civil War commander, a renowned poet and an Olympic medalist in speed walking are among the candidates vying for seats Sunday in the regional legislature here.

But there are few doubts the pro-Kremlin United Russia party will dominate in what looks to be a precursor to next year's State Duma elections.

The lack of suspense appears to have prompted a mix of apathy and anger.

"Voting won't change anything," said Mikhail Yukhma, a writer and Chuvash nationalist who once played a key role in local politics. "Nowadays, with enough money, you can get a cat elected."

Indeed, money is one of the big reasons why Sunday's elections appear to be a done deal.

As of Thursday, there had been 63 complaints filed by legislative candidates about their political rivals, regional elections chief Lyudmila Linik said.

Most of those complaints -- none of which have resulted in any candidates being tossed from races -- involved attempts to buy votes, failure to account for funds used to print campaign literature and related issues, Linik said.

Communist and Rodina officials said vote fraud was most prevalent in the villages, where people closely follow the orders of local administrators and 40 percent of the region's people live.

In the final stretch before the elections, United Russia will be canvassing villages, said the party's Chuvashia spokesman, Alexei Belov. Belov declined a reporter's request to join United Russia officials on the campaign trail.

Even though many villagers are aware of improprieties, few are willing to make much noise, said Valentin Shurchanov, the leader of the Communist Party's Chuvashia chapter and a legislative candidate.

"Imagine living in a village," Shurchanov said. "You can complain, go to court, win a lawsuit against the local administration. But how could you live there among the same people afterward?"

The only way to make sure there are no problems, Yukhma said, is for the region's governor, Nikolai Fyodorov, to step in and take charge.

It's unclear what good that would do. Fyodorov, who was recently reappointed by President Vladimir Putin, is a member of United Russia.

What is clear, political analysts said, is that Chuvashia is a model for regions across the country, with United Russia capturing the lion's share of the vote while Rodina, the Communists and a handful of other parties compete for bread crumbs.

"Chuvashia is a solid, Russian province that shows how an average region lives," said Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Merkator think tank in Moscow.

Calling Chuvashia very stable but not very rich, Oreshkin added that the regional administration largely controls the political life of the region, with its mix of ethnic Chuvash, ethnic Russians, Tartars and other ethnic groups.

United Russia's leaflets, posted in the lobbies of office buildings scattered across this tidy Volga River city, proclaim: "A United Russia. A Strong Chuvashia."

Voters seem resigned to United Russia's impending victory, more concerned with keeping the streets clean than upsetting the political order.

As he sped past a street sweeper, Andrei, a cab driver who declined to give his last name, noted that Cheboksary had been named Russia's cleanest town in a national contest.

Andrei voiced frustration with Moscow bigwigs swooping into town and buying factories and other businesses.

Major local employers include the tractor maker Promtraktor, the Tekstilmash plant and Khimprom, a chemicals producer. The average monthly salary is 5,500 rubles ($205), Shurchanov said.

But Andrei said he had no plans to vote. "It wouldn't change anything," he said. "I'd rather sleep late."

Still, local authorities are predicting that more than half of the region's 971,000 voters will cast ballots on Sunday.

Another voter, who would only give his name as Ildar, said he had retired from the military to work in a private security firm.

Ildar said he would vote for First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a likely presidential contender in 2008, if he were running because he could get things done.

But on Sunday he'll be casting his vote for "against all" to make sure, he said, no one steals his vote. The option to oppose all candidates on a ballot was eliminated earlier this year in a controversial bill that sailed through the Duma, but it will not take effect until after the upcoming legislative elections.