In a shoddy classroom at the main university in Yaroslavl, a town of snow-covered churches 150 miles north of Moscow, a group of students are discussing Sunday’s parliamentary vote.
In previous elections Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia party entered the race assured of gaining high levels of support. Such an outcome can no longer be guaranteed in a country becoming increasingly dissatisfied with one-party rule.
Katya, 19, says she wants “more of a choice”. Matvei says United Russia, which was created 10 years ago to support Putin, is not playing fair. Alina bemoans that “we haven’t seen democracy yet”.
Whenever the students’ comments become too negative, they are quickly silenced – not by their professor, but a thuggish man in an Adidas tracksuit. Kirill is the class’s representative from Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), United Russia’s militant youth wing.
Every university and factory has their party representative, men and women of unwavering faith in Putin. In the runup to the election , it is they who are trawling cities and villages across Russia, pressuring voters in an attempt to ward off the disastrous showing that pollsters predict.
“The 90s were terrifying – there was crime everywhere, not even the quietest street was safe,” Kirill pronounces, as several students indicate they won’t cast their vote for the ruling party. “Now things are changing, we have stability.”
That is the line promoted by Putin, most recently at a party congress last week when the prime minister formally accepted United Russia’s nomination to run in the 4 March presidential election. Most Russians have accepted his victory as a foregone conclusion, assuming he will return for two more six-year terms, which would put him in the Kremlin until 2024. In his 12 years as the most powerful man in Russia, Putin has clamped down on, or co-opted, all opposition, allowing no alternative to his leadership to emerge.
It is Sunday’s vote, for representatives to the Duma, or lower house of parliament, that will test Putin’s course.
“United Russia is the system – it’s hard to even call it a party,” said Tatyana Borodina, the regional representative for Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitor. “We’re voting, in principle, for or against the system.”
Research shows support for that system is steadily dropping. Pollster VTsIOM found 41% of voters intended to vote for United Russia – well below the 64% it won in the last round of elections in 2007. An internal party poll, leaked to the respected online news portal Gazeta.ru in October, found United Russia expected to get just 29% in Moscow and 31% in St Petersburg.
“The situation in society is really changing. The apathy that existed four years ago isn’t there anymore,” said Yaroslav Yudin, one of three deputies in Yaroslavl’s 36-member parliament who does not belong to United Russia.
Last month, public discontent spilled over for the first time when Putin was booed during an appearance at a martial arts fight, an event described by analysts as a watershed moment in his rule.
Declining living standards and rampant corruption have played their share, but according to Yudin, the turning point was Putin’s announcement in September that he planned to return to the presidency, with Dmitry Medvedev, the current president, taking his role as prime minister.
“With the Putin-Medvedev switch, the people were told: ‘Ok boys, Daddy’s coming back,'” he said. “Many didn’t expect that Putin could be a dictator like [Soviet premier Leonid] Brezhnev who planned to die in the Kremlin, but now it turns out that it might be true.”
Faced with a potentially unprecedented show of discontent, critics claim the Kremlin has gathered all its resources to restrict opposition, falsify support and threaten punishment if United Russia doesn’t give a good showing in Sunday’s vote.
On Wednesday, the governor of the Siberian region of Omsk said during a televised interview that “big industry will leave the region” if residents failed to vote for “the right party”. He wasn’t the first to employ such scare tactics: in late October, the mayor of the Urals city of Izhevsk was caught on video telling veterans that their government allowances would be raised if United Russia received a high percentage of the vote. The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, has sent postage-free letters urging city residents to vote for the party, a violation of electoral rules. All around Russia, members of the Communist and Just Russia parties have come forward with complaints that their newspapers have been confiscated and their electoral propaganda posters destroyed.
Golos, the election monitor, has come under pressure from prosecutors and parliamentary deputies, who have demanded its closure on the eve of the vote. The Moscow police warned on Thursday that it would break up any demonstrations on Sunday. Opposition groups have promised to protest against the vote.
Pro-Kremlin youth groups are part of the strategy. Nashi has promised to bus in 30,000 activists to Moscow to counter any opposition.
At Yaroslavl State University, only three of 22 students admit they will vote against United Russia in the Sunday vote while Kirill, the pro-Putin activist, is present. Asked once he leaves the room, every single student raises their hand.