Some Russians Take Elections Seriously, Some Don't

Russian election results provide fodder for political jokes.

MOSCOW, March 4, 2008 — -- Russians are very big on jokes, or anekdoti as they are called here.

At most gatherings, especially ones where alcohol is involved, people go around the table telling the latest anekdoti. Naturally, the election here has created fodder for a slew of anekdoti, one of which goes like this:

Putin and Medvedev go to a restaurant to have dinner together. Putin says to the waitress, "I'll have a steak, please." The waitress asks, "And for the vegetable?" Putin looks over at Medvedev and says, "The vegetable will have a steak, too."

It's not exactly a thigh slapper, but it plays on one of the most intriguing elements of this election, namely the perception that Dmitri Medvedev is little more than Vladimir Putin's puppet and that Putin will continue to pull the strings.

"I think Putin was considered by Russians to be a leader. Medvedev will be considered by Russians to be a manager," political journalist Alexei Pushkov told ABC News.

As the crowds formed in Red Square, Sunday night, to celebrate Medvedev's victory, it was telling to hear them chanting over and over, "Putin, Putin, Putin."

Now, it may well be that it's a bit of a tongue twister to say Medvedev three times quickly, but it reveals two important things. One, Putin enjoys enormous popularity with the Russian people. And two, Sunday's landslide victory is seen primarily as Putin's victory and a resounding endorsement of his leadership.

During Putin's eight years as president, life has improved for most Russians. The economy has boomed on the back of high oil prices, stability has been restored after the chaos of the 1990s and Russia has re-emerged as a major world power.

"When [Boris] Yeltsin stepped down, the feeling was that the country was falling apart. There was a very bad feeling in Russia… So I think what Putin did first, he saved the country," Pushkov told ABC News.

There has also been a darker side to Putin's presidency: Domestic media have been stifled and Russia's small opposition suppressed. Relations with America have deteriorated over issues such as a nuclear Iran, America's planned missile defense plan and U.S. support of Kosovo.

"There is complete distrust of the United States here. One zero zero, 100 percent. Complete distrust as a partner and as a competitor," Sergey Karaganov, a member of the Council of Defense and Foreign Relations, told ABC News.

On Monday, tens of thousands of pro-Putin youth groups took to the streets to celebrate and also to protest outside the U.S. Embassy.

Their complaints varied, but mostly they felt angered and offended by American criticism of Russia's elections and of American accusations that Russia is not a functioning democracy.

A young man named Yevgeny said, "We don't need you to tell us how to choose our president."

It's a sentiment that resonates deeply in Russia as Pushkov articulated to ABC News.

"There are a lot of things, which point out that Yeltsin's Russia was not a democracy. Paradoxically, enough Americans maintain that it always was a democracy. And so the feeling is in Russia that America judges not by democratic standards, but America judges Russia by the level, I would say of support which the Russian president gives to American goals in foreign policy."

So how conciliatory will Medvedev be toward America? It's one of many questions that have analysts buzzing. Some have speculated that Medvedev will be a more liberal president than Putin, based on his rhetoric and manner. Others disagree.

"I think that Dmitri Medvedev's liberalism is wishful thinking. I think it's based on the fact that he's softer spoken. … This is all rhetoric … but the gap between the rhetoric and the reality in Russia has reached a range that is familiar to Soviet days," Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told ABC News.

Not everyone was celebrating Medvedev's victory Monday.

At a metro station in Central Moscow, a small group of opposition supporters attempted to stage an unsanctioned protest. Hundreds and hundreds of riot police poured into the area, wielding batons and carrying shields.

As small groups of the protesters sporadically lit flares, they called out "nam nuzhno drugaya rossiya" meaning "we need another Russia."

The police immediately pounced on them, dragging them through the street toward waiting police vans and in some cases beating them.