NEWS ANALYSIS: Travel shapes opinions of disgruntled St. Petersburg voters
Support for the ruling United Russia is at its lowest in areas close to Finland
By Anneli Ahonen in St. Petersburg
When the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pore over the results of Sunday's State Duma elections, their lips will turn downwards and the frowns will appear.
At the latest when they scan the figures from North-Western Russia, they may actually wish to cover their eyes altogether.
The ruling party in the Russian Federation, Yedínaya Rossíya (United Russia), received its lowest approval ratings from the voters in those areas immediately to the east of the border with Finland.
Murmansk, Archangel, the Karelian Republic, the Leningrad Oblast, and St. Petersburg itself all gave only a little over 30% of their votes to United Russia.
In the last elections in 2007, the figures were close to 50%, as United Russia claimed 64.3% of the vote nationwide, against less than 50% this time around.
The numbers coming out of St. Petersburg speak of a profound sense of discontent, and at the same time the western metropolis has also been reported as having experienced systematic election fraud.
Spravedlivaya Rossiya (SR, "A Just Russia", "Fair Russia") is demanding a recount in St. Petersburg, because according to its own calculations the party would in many places actually have triumphed over United Russia.
The party's support in St. Petersburg, according to official returns, rose no higher than 25.3%.
All the same, this is nearly twice as much as the party polled on average in Russia as a whole (13.25%).
The result gained by the liberal bloc Yabloko (The Russian United Democratic Party) in the Duma elections in St. Petersburg was even more dramatic, in that it was four times as high here (12%) as in the country as a whole (3.4%). The party also made gains in the city council elections held at the same time.
Political researcher Dmitri Gavra notes that the Yabloko result indicates that the order to systematically fix the voting did not come directly from Moscow.
One reason for the voter dissatisfaction is that the residents of St. Petersburg have only a very vague belief in a better future.
Although the nation has benefited from economic growth in recent years, a large section of the population has been left out in the distribution of largesse.
To many, Vladimir Putin has begun to represent an arrogant despot spoiled by years of power and authority, who has shifted from his earlier guise as a firm-handed man of the people to be an abettor of the corruption that is rampant in Russian society.
The opinions are also shaped by travel. For the people living in St. Petersburg, tourism into the Schengen area has become a mass phenomenon, with one of the knock-on effects being a need to greatly increase the size of the Finnish Consulate-General in the city, in order to cope with the nearly one million visa applications this year alone.
Armed with these documents, the burghers of St. Petersburg pop over the border for weekends in Finland and spend their holidays on the beaches and ski-slopes of Europe.
Many make comparisons between Finland and Russia, and Russia does not come out of the encounter very well.
In these latest elections, voter turnout was up in St. Petersburg, and the newcomers to the polls spread their votes among the opposition parties.
The well-known Russian blogger and political & social activist Aleksei Navalny's exhortation to vote for anyone rather than United Russia had an impact last weekend.
The Net is breaking down the power exercised by a television that is largely under the control of the state and government.
Russia already has online TV-channels that try to produce an ambitious flow of news.
One of them, Dozhd, has now moved over to the cable networks.
As scions of St. Petersburg themselves, Putin and Medvedev both know that the city of nearly five million inhabitants is not their strongest area for support.
Medvedev has already threatened to draw the obvious conclusions and to call the regions' governors to account for the failure.
Rather than closing their eyes to the erosion of support, a better means of mollifying the public might be to return the practice of elections for governorships.
Now the regional leaders appointed by Presidential decree are simply fanning the flames of discontent and rebellion.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.12.2011
ANNELI AHONEN / Helsingin Sanomat