Muscovites indulge in shopping sprees as elections near

It is less than 48 hours before the polls open for four-yearly parliamentary elections, and Muscovites are indulging their new favourite pastime: shopping - a concept so novel that it translates into Russian as "shopping".

Emerging from the metro station halfway up Tverskaya - the Regent Street of Moscow - no one avoids the attentions of the green and white clad campaigners for Yabloko - the moderate reformist party - that was running joint fourth in the latest opinion polls. Yabloko's leader, Grigori Yavlinsky, has been on television more than President Putin in the final few days of campaigning, and the party has switched its activists away from putting up posters, which only get torn down, and sent them out with leaflets instead.

Some people bat away the leaflets; others take them, only to put them in the next bin. Older people seem to like these young, unapologetic campaigners buzzing around the metro entrance and say "thank you", politely.

Fewer, older and less persistent, are the yellow and green clad leafleteers for Rodina (Homeland), which wants a slice of the former Communist vote. It is campaigning to have the money of the billionaire oligarchs confiscated and returned to the people.

An elderly man pats one on the shoulder, saying: "Well done, carry on the good work."

Out on Tverskaya, competition for space is fierce. There is the man disguised as an enormous polystyrene beer mug, advertising a brand of Russian beer, and girls in red and yellow aprons handing out cards for a newly opened shoe-repair kiosk to be negotiated before the serious business of "shopping" can begin.

Fifty yards or so further on, the slow procession has come to a halt. Everyone is staring wide-eyed into the vast windows of Yeliseyev's, the Fortnum's of Moscow before the 1917 Revolution, which reopened this week, restored - the PR people said - to its former glory.

The decor and the elaborate gilding - all visible from the street - are, indeed, breathtaking. An elderly woman who ventured inside ahead of me, straightened her coat and hat in the vast mirror before taking on the wine section.

"More than 400 roubles [£8]," she remarks, in a tone more amused than offended. "As if anyone would pay that."

There were plenty of fur-clad Muscovites in the food section, though, who were preparing to pay that, and much more, for their baskets of delicacies. These were not Moscow's super-rich, but a mixture of the curious and comfortably-off. Their natural political home might well be the Union of Right Forces (SPS), which wants Russia to speed towards the free market

"But that Boris Nemtsov annoys me," one young woman said of one of its three leaders. "He's a show-off, a windbag."

Out on the street, people seemed uncomfortable when asked directly who they planned to vote for. Some said they would not vote at all.

One said "We know who will get the most votes; it's United Russia. They're in charge now." United Russia is the centrist party set up to steer President Putin's policies through the Russian parliament. Its blue and yellow banners and posters dominate the streets, but any real live activists - or even any convinced supporters - are hard to find.

There is no such problem with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's far-right Liberal Democrats. They held their final rally in Pushkin Square, and it was a roaring, packed affair.

But now the talking is all but over and it is time for the crowds to stop shopping for a while and get themselves to the ballot box.

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