In Putin's heartland, apathy and disappointment rule

Three months ahead of Russia's presidential election, apathy and disappointment pervade incumbent Vladimir Putin's heartland.

Alexandra Chekh, a retired kindergarten director, voted for Putin the last time around in 2012. Now she wonders if he has anything to offer.

"Change? If he could do it, he would have done it by now," she said. "If nothing gets done, then maybe we will need a new person."

A new person is unlikely — the 65-year-old Putin is the overwhelming favorite in Russia's March 18 presidential vote. But the dim view taken by former supporters such as Chekh is notable in a city like Novokuznetsk, part of the Kemerovo region in southwestern Siberia where Putin tallied 77 percent of the vote in 2012.

The city itself lies 4,500 miles (7,240 kilometers) east of Moscow.

Since that last election, anti-corruption campaigner and adamant Putin foe Alexei Navalny has been able to spread his message far beyond the prosperous and educated urban circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg where his support started. But Navalny is saddled by a fraud and embezzlement conviction — which his supporters view as politically motivated — that will prevent him from running in the presidential race unless he's pardoned or some other dispensation is made.

Navalny is pressing on, nonetheless. On Saturday, several hundred people showed up at his rally in Novokuznetsk, a city of nearly 550,000 people that is home to coal mines, metals plants and soot-smelling air. Some at the rally came without hats or gloves despite the minus -15 Celsius (minus -5 Fahrenheit) temperatures.

Navalny focused on the grievances he has been highlighting throughout the campaign: low pay for state employees, the concentration of wealth in Moscow and the Kremlin's excessive funding for foreign policy forays.

Official statistics show the region's average monthly pay as 31,600 rubles ($532), a little under the Russian average. But Novokuznetsk residents think those figures are inflated by officials. When Navalny asked the crowd how much a nurse makes in Novokuznetsk, they shouted "10,000" or "15,000."

If Putin's 18 years in power have induced apathy and a sense of helplessness among Russian voters, that's the big issue in Navalny's view.

Putin has made voters in industrial cities like Novokuznetsk his base, touting stability as the key achievement of his rule. But these days, finding a fervent Putin supporter on Novokuznetsk's snow-covered streets can be hard.

Of seven residents approached by an AP reporter, only four said they supported Putin. None of them expressed enthusiasm.

A survey by the independent polling agency Levada Center suggests that enthusiasm for Putin is in decline countrywide. It found that 51 percent of those questioned said they were tired of waiting for Putin to bring "positive change," 10 percentage points higher than a year ago.

Through his canny, energetic use of social media and YouTube, Navalny has done an end-run around Russia's state-controlled news media, which is the main source of information for people outside of the country's main cities. Demonstrations called by Navalny this year rattled the Kremlin, not only because of their large turnouts but due to the fact they were taking place in provincial cities throughout the country.

Many of those who showed up at the Novokuznetsk rally say Putin does have support there, but nowhere near as overwhelmingly as the last election figures indicated. The real picture, they say, is distorted by widespread voting fraud.

Navalny told The Associated Press after the rally that he is encouraged by the warm reception he is seeing in Russia's regions. He says that proves support for Putin in the places that habitually give him 80 percent of the vote at the polls is "fiction and falsification."

Navalny's activists all over Russia have been canvassing all year on the streets and going door-to-door to talk to voters, despite threats and intimidation from authorities.

"If we can hold such a big rally here, with all the pressure and intimidation, it means that we enjoy at least significant support here," Navalny said after an hour of posing for photos with rally attendees in Novokuznetsk.

Navalny initially laughed off a question about what is going to happen if authorities — when the presidential campaign officially starts later this month — formally bar him from running.

"(The Kremlin) cannot bar me from running if such a big number of people is supporting me," he declared.

But he later offered a glimpse into his plans.

"If they don't register me, people together with me will not recognize this election and we will boycott this election," he said.

A low presidential turnout is something the Kremlin is very wary about.

Fighting apathy is one of the most common theories behind the surprise presidential bid of socialite-turned-journalist Ksenia Sobchak. The 36-year-old candidate has been mildly critical of Putin but faces none of the obstacles that Navalny's supporters do. Many Russians think her efforts are designed to boost interest in an otherwise bland presidential campaign — a claim that Sobchak absolutely denies.

But Navalny probably does not even need to call for a boycott to bring the turnout even lower, because many residents of the Kemerovo region have already given up on the presidential vote.

Sergei Maslyukov, 40, watched his daughter slide off a mammoth mound of snow on Novokuznetsk's main square. He did not go to Navalny's rally Saturday and has not heard much about the popular activist. He is also disappointed in Putin but sees no viable alternative to the Russian leader.

"The promises he made . he did not make good on them," Maslyukov said. "What promises? Do you think average pay in Russia correlates to the prices? I'm not going to vote for anyone."