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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 10:30 GMT
Home supporters back Putin

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent in St Petersburg

Dima, Russian sailor
St Petersburg's residents were keen to use their vote

In the naval city of St Petersburg, the conscripts from the Battleship Aurora were woken up early to vote.

Some 40 sailors made the quick march to the polling booth from their floating post on the River Neva.

As he dropped his paper into the ballot box in a back room at the Nakhimov Naval Academy, Dima denied any hint of coercion.

"We all wanted to vote," he insisted.

"We want to decide our own fate."

'Fighter'

For most of the sailors that meant a vote for Vladimir Putin.

"He's so enthusiastic and he works so hard," Dima explained as he wandered back to the battleship.

"He's a sportsman, a fighter - like I am," his friend added.

"There's just no comparing him to Boris Yeltsin!"

There was more military on the streets at Sennaya square, across town.

A marine band had been instructed to set the tone for the election, so they struck up a series of lively numbers to encourage residents out to vote.

"Today's a celebration!" explained Misha between bursts on the trumpet. "We're choosing our president and making history!"

Drumming alongside him, Anton said he was so sure Vladimir Putin would win regardless he decided to vote for the liberal candidate Irina Khakamada. He was trying to persuade his friends to do the same.

"I don't care about her policies at all," he laughed. "But she's a woman and I thought I should support her to brighten up her day!"

Foregone conclusion

From the other side of the square came the competing strains of a Russian folk choir in concert.

In front of the stage conscript soldiers doled out sticky spoonfuls of free buckwheat and meat to the elderly - an election-day present from the city authorities.

At least he's put my pension up a bit - I think he's a decent man
Nikolai, pensioner

Like many in the queue that snaked down the pavement, Nikolai looked like he needed a good meal.

He brought a metal container to take away extra rations for his sick wife.

Life may not have got much easier for Nikolai under Vladimir Putin, but even so, he wanted the president to stay in power.

"At least he's put my pension up a bit," Nikolai explained. "I think he's a decent man."

There had been worries in Moscow that voter turnout would be low.

Mr Putin's victory may have been a foregone conclusion, but his team was looking to win the strongest possible mandate.

They need not have worried in his home town.

As election officials monitored the turnout in city hall, a young bride posed outside for a photograph. Clad top-to-toe in white, Natasha said she had not had time to vote ahead of the ceremony but insisted she would make it to the polls.

"I'm voting for Vladimir Putin," she giggled, clinging to the arm of her new husband. "He's so attractive and energetic!"

Lack of apathy

There were some voices of opposition in Mr Putin's home town, but they were extremely difficult to find.

St Petersburg residents
St Petersburg residents were encouraged out of their houses

Valery spent the day manning the desks at a polling station for St Petersburg's homeless. A willowy figure, he accepted that many people genuinely like Vladimir Putin.

But Valery is disturbed that Russians know so little about the president's intentions.

He fears his country risks throwing away 14 years of democracy. "I am worried what kind of Russia we're trying to build," Valery told me.

"Russia has many examples of totalitarianism in her history.

"Building a new kind of dictatorship is very dangerous, but I can see the signs."

Valery is something of a voice in the wilderness in St Petersburg. Ahead of the polls, the only real rival to Vladimir Putin in this uneven race was the potential apathy of the voters.

But that proved no competition at all in his home town.



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