Vladimir Putin’s presence at the pre-campaign congress of the United Russia party has drawn the entire spectrum of responses from various politicians and publications: from unrestrained joy (“the delegates welcomed the president with deafening standing ovations”, said Nezavisimaya Gazeta) to utter bewilderment and bitter disappointment.

Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the central commmittee of the Communist Party (CPRF) – United Russia’s main rival in the elections – complained to the Vedomosti newspaper: “The president has not kept his word. After all, he did promise to remain above the fray during the campaign.”

As might have been expected, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov took full advantage of the situation, emphasizing once again: “Whoever supports the president supports us.” Valery Bogomolov, secretary of the United Russia general council, is quoted in Vedomosti as speaking even more grandly: “The main event at the congress was the arrival of the nation’s chief voter.”

Actually, one of the main purposes of a pre-campaign congress is to approve party electoral lists and nominate candidates for the Duma elections. However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, United Russia leaders read out all the electoral lists right at the start of the congress – essentially presenting delegates with a fait accompli.

There was no question of any intra-party debate at the congress – even though, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, there were plenty of unhappy delegates: over half of the faction’s current Duma members have been allocated places on the lists that mean they stand absolutely no chance of re-election. The favorable places on the lists have been given to “minions of the many regional leaders who are heading United Russia’s 15 or so regional electoral lists.”

The federal part of the electoral list looks even more curious: of the four people at the top of it, three – Yuri Luzhkov, Sergei Shoigu, and Mintimer Shaimiev – have no intention of running for the Duma. As for Boris Gryzlov, when asked if he intends to run personally, he answered with police-style directness: “That will be decided by the president.”

As the Kommmersant newspaper noted, party democracy turned out to be in danger at the congress, but “nobody was interested in talking about that.” Contrary to the recommendations of Central Electoral Commission (CEC) head Alexander Veshnyakov, delegates were asked to vote on entire electoral lists at once, rather than approving each candidate individually. What’s more, “under cover of all the noise, the congress also voted to delegate the right to finalize the lists to the party’s central executive committee.” Understandably, they preferred not to publicize differences of opinion between ordinary party members and party leaders.

In short, United Russia has once again shown itself to be “the party of the chiefs” – a definition supplied by Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces (URF). Nemtsov says: “Putin is United Russia’s one and only trump card in the campaign.”

This opinion is shared by the experts consulted by Vedomosti.

Igor Bunin, general director of the Political Techniques Center, says that in strengthening United Russia with the president’s authority, the Kremlin is attempting to return to “the concept of having only one party supported by the regime”; this is unlikely to succeed, since there are already several similar parties aspiring to that role: the People’s Party, the Party of Life, and the Motherland (Rodina) bloc.

Oleg Matveichev from the Bakster Group political consulting agency says United Russia has no chance of beating the Communists without Putin’s help: “I haven’t met a single person who likes United Russia, its leaders, its projects, its advertising, and so on.”

However, it turns out that there is such a person after all – and voters now know who he is.

Gazeta published some extracts from the president’s speech, full of compliments for United Russia.

“I have not had any occasion to regret voting for your party, since you have succeeded in creating a group of centrist factions in the Duma: a group which has taken – and this is no exaggeration – a statesmanlike position on the most important issues in the development of our state.”

Putin went on to say: “And it hasn’t always been easy to explain to people why certain decisions need to be approved. We still have many stereotypes and leftovers from the past in our way of thinking and our life today. But you haven’t been afraid to do it; your faction members haven’t been afraid to do it. This sets a very good example for others.”

It’s surprising how often politicians of various ranks, starting at the very top, express frustration at the “leftovers from the past” in the way Russian voters think. Almost at the same time as the president was complaining about the people’s lack of awareness, Irina Khakamada, Duma deputy speaker and URF co-leader, commented on the outcome of the first round of voting in the St. Petersburg gubernatorial election: “Putin is winning. It’s Byzantium. We’re creating a Byzantine state, and paradoxically enough, the conclusion is that the people rather than politicians are to blame. The people don’t want to value liberty or their own rights; they don’t understand that they can use elections to defend those rights and shape the government. (Quoted in the Russkii Kurier newspaper.)

It should be noted that there have been more articles in the papers about the St. Petersburg election than about other, seemingly more significant, political events. Many analysts have viewed the St. Petersburg election as a form of primaries for the “big elections”. And few share Irina Khakamada’s opinion.

First of all, the papers drew attention to the record low voter turnout in St. Petersburg: as Vedomosti reported, it was only 29%. Three years ago, voter turnout was 49% – and 72.7% of them voted for Vladimir Yakovlev, whose early resignation as governor was to lead to so much talk and speculation.

Valentina Matvienko got only 48.7% of the vote, falling short of victory in the first round by only 1.3%. Matvienko herself managed to save face, declaring that these figures are the best proof that the St. Petersburg election was democratic: “Had we used administrative resources, as we were accused of doing, we would have got that additional 1.3%.”

However, observers don’t believe the situation is that straightforward. Anna Markova, the deputy governor from Yakovlev’s team, came second to Matvienko with 15.8%. But it’s no accident that the third-highest share of the vote, 11%, went to the “against all candidates” option. In commenting on this, Tatiana Protasenko of the Sociology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences has called St. Petersburg “a city of wounded self-esteem”: a nuance completely overlooked by those behind Matvienko’s campaign.

Mark Urnov, president of the Ekspertiza Foundation, writes in Vremya Novostei: “Overall, this election indicates that at least in the major cities – like Tver, St. Petersburg, and others – the citizenry is showing some degree of protest at the use of state resources.” Urnov advises the regime to be more scrupulous in its campaign tactics, at least in the major cities. “The regime needs to act like a partner, not an arrogant dominant male of the species. Any form of crude behavior or lack of sensitivity towards the electorate, especially in the big cities, is already having undesirable consequences.” Such behavior is being punished by low voter turnout.

Although the regime is now more stable than ever, and Putin is trusted by the majority, actions still ought to be more scrupulous. Mark Urnov notes: “The influence of the regime over the electorate is not infinite.”

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Anatoly Kostiukov expresses himself even more emotionally on the same theme: “For three months, the residents of St. Petersburg have had it drummed into their heads from every tribunal and television screen that they have no alternatives – they will never, can never have any alternatives – so there’s no use in resisting: they must go forth and elect Valentina Matvienko. And yet the city of blockade survivors has resisted.”

Neither does Kostiukov have any doubt that the St. Petersburg election result is “a response from the city’s residents to shameless violation of their will.”

Vremya Novostei says this result will not have any negative effect on Matvienko’s political reputation (“Election results are soon forgotten. Whatever happens, the memories of voters and the elite retain one fact: a candidate has been elected, has won”) or the president’s image (“The president’s position is very stable, he has withstood worse things than this”). But Nezavisimaya Gazeta is more critical in its assessment of the situation. Kostiukov says: “As it is, nobody in St. Petersburg has any doubt that Matvienko is Putin’s creature. So the public demonstration of presidential support for her appeared excessively crude – an attempt to bluff voters. Now it appears that anyone who doesn’t vote for Matvienko is against the president.” There has been an unfortunate outcome: now, as Kostiukov points out, Putin, “who wanted to share Matvienko’s victory, is forced to share her defeat.”

In any event, according to the papers, the story of the St. Petersburg election delivered a serious warning to the president – who until now has had a reputation for being an ultra-cautious politician who always prefers to remain above the fray. Yet Putin has not applied this experience to the federal election campaign. He turned up at the United Russia congress.

United Russia’s opponents were not slow to take advantage of this. According to Gazeta, CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov has already sent a Duma member’s inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the CEC. They are requested to “instigate proceedings against Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as a Category A state official and fine him under articles 5-10 and 5-11 of the Civil Code – a penalty of 22,500 rubles (50 times the minimum monthly wage) for engaging in campaign activities at the United Russia congress.”

CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov had already expressed his position on this issue, also in Gazeta. Veshnyakov sees nothing unlawful in Putin’s speech at the congress. Moreover, Veshnyakov says: “The president’s action shows that he has moved away from behind-the-scenes battles and taken an open, clear and distinct stand of his own.”

True enough, neither the president nor United Russia have ever concealed their preference for each other. So there’s nothing actually new in what has just happened. Of course, it would be better if their love for each other was less affected – but that might not be in keeping with Russian traditions. As everyone knows, Russians are a people of extremes.

However, certain papers have detected some positive aspects in the public demostration of reciprocated attachment between the president and his party. Yevgeny Kiselev – once a star of Russian television, now the new chief editor of Moskovskie Novosti – says Vladimir Putin’s demonstrative appearance at the United Russia congress, “paradoxically enough, may in a certain sense work to the advantage of the liberal part of our society.”

As everyone knows, United Russia is the project of the Voloshin-Surkov-Pavlovsky team within the Kremlin. According to Kiselev, an election defeat for this party would be equivalent to a defeat for the liberals in their current power-struggle with the security and law enforcement group. But now, says Kiselev, United Russia has managed to secure the most important resource: “Voters can hardly have any doubts now about which party has the president’s backing.” And an election win for the United Russia party would undoubtedly strengthen the position of the liberals within the Kremlin; what’s more, it could prevent “the nation’s slide into the authoritarian regime of the security and law enforcement agencies.”

Of course, Kiselev notes, it is strange that now “we have reached the point of pinning all our hopes on the very same people who so eagerly started creating ‘managed democracy’ four years ago.” However, as Kiselev philosophically concludes, “that’s the nature of politics. It can involve the most unlikely combinations of events.”

One way or another, everyone is noting one point: as Vremya Novostei puts it, “the president has started to speak.” And he has spoken out in support of United Russia, the Voloshin-Surkov project; not the project of their opponents, the Ivanov-Sechin team – “the Seleznev-Mironov alliance and the People’s Party.”

Vremya Novostei points out that both of these movements are targetting the same part of the electorate as United Russia. “Of course, the president’s clear, unambiguous support for United Russia won’t mean that these new formations no longer have the right to be called pro-presidential; but it does send out a very specific message to voters who want to support the president about which party they should vote for.” The key point here is not to overdo it, as in St. Petersburg.

Ekspert magazine says voters have plenty of reasons to vote against all parties.

“There is a vast and obvious gulf in electoral motivation between the elite and most of the public,” says Ekspert. Those at the top are caught up in campaign fever. Analysts claim these elections will set new spending records: the price of a Duma seat has increased several-fold, and huge sums are being spent on political consultants.

But voters are still in the grip of their notorious political apathy. Polls show that around a third of even those voters who say they will definitely vote in December still haven’t decided whom to vote for. Despite all efforts, the support ratings of parties are not rising. So there will be some problems with voter turnout.

However, says Ekspert, there’s no need to get upset over the political indifference of Russian voters: “On the contrary, we should be glad about their common sense.” Ekspert goes on to say: “Russian society’s alienation from politics is a response to Russian politics losing its social content.” In this way, voters are sending the message that they are interested “in real links with the public, not colorful public relations.”

Ekspert says that at the dawn of their existence, Russia’s political parties defined their purpose in precisely that way: as a search for a feedback mechanism, a link between the developing civil society and the state. Not a word is spoken about that now. “Once the transition period ended, our parties turned to a more familiar and more noble task. The state has given them a responsible mission: they are strengthening the hierarchy of governance at its very foundations, tamping down its social base, so to speak.” In short, things are back to where they used to be: “The party is our helmsman.” And it steers where it is told to steer by the regime, not by the citizenry; at least, that is the case if we’re talking about the regime’s party.

Ekspert notes that many observers say Russian parties all look alike: “But that is not true. The parties and their leaders have different faces, of course, and they continue to carefully cultivate the differences. It’s not a matter of the parties becoming less distinguishable from each other; it’s a matter of voters not wanting to notice them or tell them apart.” According to Ekspert, this attitude among voters reflects the essence of the problem: “Russia’s political parties are not participants in the political process” – not a single one of them has really done anything to resist “the profanation of politics.”

Therefore, says Ekspert, there are at least five reasons for voting “against all candidates.” The first has already been covered: the parties are not participants in politics. “Voting for party electoral lists is not a political choice; it’s a choice between varieties of political rhetoric, marketed according to the structure of voter preferences and tastes.”

The second reason is that parties in the Duma – including the oppositional and liberal parties – “have agreed to the political system reforms handed down to them from above”: reforms with the goal of preserving “the Russian system of governance, with its perennial abuses on the part of the state and perennial corruption.” In agreeing, the parties have lost the right to be respected by voters.

The third reason voting for party lists makes no sense is that the parties, having become “the private enterprises of a small group of professional party politicians”, are battling for “PR contracts from the presidential administration” and/or various groups of oligarchs.

Moreover, according to Eskpert, simply not voting at all cannot be considered an appropriate political response: “It’s standard practice to ‘boost’ voter turnout figures, and this includes additional votes being directed to ‘the necessary party’.” Not to mention the fact that low voter turnout could be used “in speculations on the topic of whether the people have grown tired of elections.”

Finally, says Ekspert, a natural wave of voting “against all candidates” needs to acquire a positive political program, including liberalization of the law on political parties and a true renovation of the party system.

Thus, voting “against all candidates” could become a real political act: one that’s more useful for developing democracy in Russia than voting for any of the parties.

In any case, it would cost far less than any party’s election campaign. As Novaya Gazeta reports, campaign spending has become this political season’s most well-kept party secret.

Yet a few details have been found out. United Russia has the largest campaign budget, of course; donations were requested “not even in the name of the regime’s party, but in the name of the president.” That’s probably why everyone has donated to United Russia: “both the Family and the St. Petersburg group, since they both want to consider Putin as one of them.” According to Novaya Gazeta, United Russia’s campaign coffers contain money from people connected with Gazprom, LUKoil, YUKOS, MezhpromBank, Rusneft, Transneft, Interros, and more. The list could be continued. No one is venturing to give a precise estimate of United Russia’s campaign budget, but it is said that around $250 million had been collected by mid-summer.

The campaign budget of the People’s Party is said to be an order of magnitude smaller, but still fairly impressive: around $20 million. And many experts say this $20 million is just the tip of the iceberg. The People’s Party is being funded by individuals and organizations associated with the St. Petersburg faction in the Kremlin: including MezhpromBank chief Sergei Pugachev and Sergei Bogdanchikov, head of Rosneft. As we can see, there is some repetition in company names.

The Motherland (Rodina) coalition formed by Sergei Glaziev is being funded by Oleg Deripaska (Russian Aluminum) and Suleiman Kerimov (Nafta-Moskva and Avtobank). According to Novaya Gazeta, the new patriots have around $10 million in their campaign coffers.

The URF and Yabloko have around the same amount of money: $20 million each. However, their sources differ. As everyone knows, Yabloko’s major sponsor is YUKOS. According to Novaya Gazeta, several companies (besides YUKOS) have joined forces to fund the URF: TNK (Tyumen Oil Company), LUKoil, the Itera gas giant, and Oleg Deripaska’s Basovyi Element company.

The Communists have always prided themselves on their ability to run low-cost election campaigns. It is said they intend to spend $8-12 million. However, Novaya Gazeta notes there were persistent rumors last spring about YUKOS having donated $72 million towards the Communist Party’s election campaign. It has proved impossible to verify this information, together with reports that TNK is involved in funding the Communists.

In short, democracy is expensive, and rather exhausting. And efforts to stir up the voters are still meeting with no success.