'He has good ideas and he loves Russia'


BY MOSCOW standards it was a relatively mild -6 degrees when polling stations opened yesterday morning, but a stiff breeze made it feel far colder and voters were well wrapped up as they arrived to cast their ballots.

Voting was brisk right from the start and a large number of observers were present at the stations I visited.

Andrei Mironov, a human rights activists and former Gulag prisoner, was one of 15 observers who crowded into station 85 in north central Moscow where Ms Olga Yanushonok was the presiding officer. Huge numbers of Russians have taken advantage of a previously little used legal clause that allows any Russian citizen to register as an election observer.

In last December’s parliamentary elections Ms Yanushonok presided over a 78 per cent vote for Mr Putin’s United Russia Party, a figure that was way out of line with results elsewhere in a city where opposition to Mr Putin is strong. Observers were keeping a close eye on her this time.

Ms Yanushonok, a middle-aged woman, was completely unfazed at the attention her polling place received.

Without the slightest hesitation she told me that she, like the observers, was completely neutral in this election.

One observer received a phone call from the provinces when I was there.

In a polling station in the Volga city of Samara observers had their mobile phones confiscated and were evicted from the voting area, I was told.

Over on the other side of the city, south of the Moscow river in the shade of the beautiful 17th century church of St Nicholas in the Weavers’ District, polling station 174 was swarming with voters.

It was here in December I discovered that about 300 votes for Mr Putin’s United Russia Party had been found in a ballot box even before the station opened for voting.

Kirill Ovechkin, an observer for the Communist Party who had uncovered the fraud in December, was there again this time but said the irregularities were extremely minor compared to those he encountered at that time.

As in station 85 the mobile phones were buzzing. Yelena Lukyanova, a lawyer acting for opposition organisations, was taking a call from another part of the city.

She is the daughter of Anatoly Lukyanov, who was imprisoned by the Yeltsin administration after the failed hard-line coup d’etat in August 1991. The call was from a woman in the Taganka district who had seen a suspicious list of voters in station 117 in the quaintly-named Tovarichesky Pereoulok (Comradely Lane).

She had been surprised to see a number of complete strangers registered as living in her own apartment.

Sergei Lukyanov (31) and his wife Olga (29) , who are not related to Yelena Lukyanova, were forthcoming about who they voted for. Sergei had voted for Mr Putin while Olga had cast her ballot for the billionaire independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov.

Sergei was blunt. “I am 30 times better off than I was before Vladimir Vladimirovich came to power. I had been in the army and by the time I left I was already 10 times better off. Now I work in computer technology and things are going well.

“ For me he is the only candidate. Prokhorov is a possiblity but I don’t think we know enough about him and how he made his money.”

Olga , an elegantly dressed journalist who specialises in real estate coverage, thought that Mr Putin had been in power long enough and a change was needed.

She felt, all the same, that he would win, but that he would be forced to work more efficiently and effectively now that he had received the message of the tens of thousands of people who had taken to the streets since December.

At the other end of the age scale was Nina Alexandrovna (75), well turned out against the cold in her stylish fur hat and coat.

She is an engineer who continues to work well past retirement age and voted for Mr Putin and admires him because “he speaks well and knows languages including German and English. He has good ideas and he loves Russia”.

She left me with a warm handshake saying:” You are the first person from Ireland I have ever met. You are all such wonderful dancers.”

If only she knew.