For Thousands of Russians in US, Voting Keeps Ties to Russia Intact
BOSTON — Many Russians who emigrated to the US in recent years thought that their exit papers guaranteed they would never stand in another long line for basic goods and services.
On June 16, however, about 1,000 Russian citizens who live in the United States found themselves lined up on a Boston street - waiting for ballots.
They were voting in the first round of the Russian presidential elections at one of 16 polling stations set up in the US in cities from Anchorage to Miami. They will vote again in the July 3 runoff - and this time the Russian Embassy in Washington has promised to provide enough ballots. The embassy had miscalculated the number of voters who would turn out for the first round, and local election officials had to scramble to get a ballot to every voter.
"Could anyone have imagined that we would see our familiar line form - for electoral ballots?" columnist Vladimir Torchilin wrote in Bostonskaya Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Boston-based Russian-language weekly.
Greater Boston alone has a Russian emigre population of about 40,000, but Sergei Bologov of the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts estimates that only several thousand still have Russian citizenship.
Boston, as the Russians say, is a drop in the sea compared with the Russian emigre vote in the rest of the US - and in the rest of the world. In the first round of presidential elections, the Russian vote from polling stations outside Russia's borders totaled 3.5 million, says Vadim Rubin, a program officer at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. With a total of 72 million total ballots, the outside vote accounts for 5 percent of the electorate and could tip the balance in a close election.
A large chunk of the 3.5 million includes votes from the "near abroad," the former Soviet republics where ethnic Russians have lived under sometimes-hostile governments since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of these voters may support Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who in the first round took a 60 percent majority in the Baltic states. Some new republics grant Russians no citizenship and limited rights. And many of these voters believe Mr. Zyuganov will take a firmer stance toward near-abroad nations.
Russians living in the US and Western Europe, though, are avid supporters of Boris Yeltsin, says Mr. Rubin. In Boston, Mr. Yeltsin took 92 percent of the first- round vote, while Zyuganov received a total of "about two votes," says Mr. Bologov. The Russian Embassy in Washington (where 2,700 voters turned out) reported similar figures.
"They are afraid that if the Communists come to power, the borders will be closed tightly, and it will be difficult to make connections with their relatives and friends in Russia," says Valeriy Lebedev, editor of Bostonskaya Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "So they are more inclined towards Yeltsin." Mr. Lebedev's newspaper and other Russian-language media were mainly responsible for publicizing elections, since the get-out-the-vote advertising campaign conducted by the Russian government didn't reach US residents.
Bologov says many have other reasons for voting. "Of course people are worried about their relatives, but a lot of people don't have relatives in Russia - they are all in Israel or Germany or Ukraine," he says. "It's very important to continue reforms, not to continue the cold war. It basically affects the whole world right now. It's a question of where we're going as a civilization."
But the need to keep the home ties strong is also at the root of the Russia vote from abroad, says Lebedev. "We just don't want to rupture the to link from the country we left."