Russian Elections: Weary voters bring no cheer to reform camp

Voices from the cities: Fears for Yeltsin's health, worries over rise of Lebed and boredom with polls erode President's support
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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin, struggling anew with serious health problems, would have taken no cheer from the sight of his voters trudging to the polls in St Petersburg, one of his main strongholds. Many of those who braved a rain- soaked day looked as if they were being forced to take a dip in one of the chilly-looking nearby canals.

This elegant city, home to much of Russia's liberal intelligentsia, finally seems to be sick of politics. "People have had it up to here," said Yevgeny Galovanov, an election official, as he watched people trickle slowly into his polling station.

It's hardly surprising. In the last seven months St Petersburg has gone to the polls five times - once for a parliamentary election, twice for the presidential contest and twice to determine a particularly cynical tussle for the city governor's job.

A communal weariness, underscored by other issues, such as organised crime, a sluggish economy and liberal outrage over Mr Yeltsin's handling Chechen war, was reflected in the turn-out last month. Only 62 per cent took part in the first round of the presidential election, 8 per cent less than the national average.

But if Mr Yeltsin's advisers believed that non-voters would finally rally round the President in yesterday's run-off, they may have been mistaken.

This is not because of a lack of effort by the Yeltsin campaign, even though it fizzled out badly towards the end. Although Mr Yeltsin secured a big victory here, almost 50 per cent in the first round, his advisers know well that a low turn-out is ominous: Communist voters tend always to vote, while Mr Yeltsin's support is far less predictable. They also know that St Petersburg is a bastion ofGrigory Yavlinsky, the liberal economist who grudgingly backs Mr Yeltsin. For the President to be sure of victory, many of these voters needed to be won over.

Hence, the thousands of copies of a free paper called "Vote!" that have circulated in the city's metro system, carrying appeals from celebrated local writers and artists; the city's decision to arrange for graffiti to be painted on walkways, bearing technicolour warnings to the city to "Vote or Lose"; and the free travel on the city's public transport system throughout yesterday's national holiday.

Most voters knew something was amiss with Mr Yeltsin's health, although it was heavily played down by much of the media, which only made occasional references to his "sore throat", and latterly, his "cold". Years of Communist censorship have taught Russians to read between the lines. Like others, Vladimir Korobkov, a dancer with the Maly Theatre, had reservations about Mr Yeltsin and has watched with alarm the rise of retired general Alexander Lebed. "The man's is a dictator," he said.

Alexander Kulakov, a driver, voted for the general in June, but yesterday decided not to turn out. "I thought I was voting for a military man, not a would-be president. I don't like all the power he is getting," he said, "It's not democratic".

In the first round, Dmitry Maksimov, an engineer at St Petersburg's giant Kirov factory, voted for Mr Yeltsin, believing he would win overwhelmingly. Yesterday he supported Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist.

"I would have voted for Boris Nikolayevich if it had not been for all those silly anti- Communist movies on television," he explained. "I don't reject my past. They showed an old lady in a campaign advertisement, saying 'I live well now', when I know she does not."