NIZHNY TAGIL, Russia (AP) – In 2011, the industrial city of Nizhny Tagil was named ‘Putingrad’ because of its residents’ fervent support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Nine years later, the city seems to live up to its nickname 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) east of Moscow.
Workers speak out against constitutional changes that could put Putin in office until 2036 amid growing frustration with their miserable living conditions, which have not improved despite all promises. A nationwide vote on the amendments is scheduled for Wednesday, but polling stations have been open for a week to vote early and avoid crowds during the pandemic.
“I am against the constitutional changes, mainly because they are a coronation of the Tsar, who rules but does not rule – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” said Nikolay Nemytov, a 43-year-old engineer with the Russian Railways, a state-run state of Monopoly. He says his monthly salary, the equivalent of $ 430, is nowhere near enough.
Anton Zhuravlyov, a 33-year-old operator at the Nizhny Tagil Iron and Steel Works Plant, or NTMK, agrees with him on the vote.
“I think (the mood) is just a show. It’s more for Putin to show that, “Look, people support me, I’m still needed, I have a lot of demand,” said Zhuravlyov, whose employer is one of the two largest companies in the city. He says his salary has not changed in four years, adding, “The majority of people are against him.”
Commentators say that declining public support is the reason the Kremlin rushed to implement the changes that Putin, who has been in power for two decades, could effectively exercise to stay another 16 years if he so chooses.
The coronavirus outbreak forced officials to postpone a vote on April 22 on a series of constitutional changes, including a clause restoring the plot count for Putin, allowing him to run for another two years after his current tenure in 2024.
At the first sign of a delay in the outbreak, Putin has opposed the plebiscite for Wednesday, although the daily number of new infections in Russia is still just under 7,000. Its historically high approval score is at an all-time low – 59% in May, according to Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent pollster – and the Kremlin is clearly struggling for the enthusiasm and turnout needed to cast the vote as a nationwide triumph.
Economic problems, such as the one in Nizhny Tagil, have eroded Putin’s television ratings for years, said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center.
“In the past five years, poverty has continued to grow, people’s financial conditions have deteriorated, and in the midst of that, (approval) ratings have slowly declined,” he said.
The mood was very different in 2011-12, when Nizhny Tagil, with its 360,000 inhabitants, became a mainstay for Putin.
Igor Kholmanskih, a foreman at the state tank and rail car factory Uralvagonzavod, appeared in Putin’s annual national telephone marathon in December 2011, denouncing the mass protests that took place in Moscow at the time as a threat to “stability.”
“Today, our thousands of employees have employees, have salaries, have a future and we value this stability. We don’t want to go back, “said the foreman, suggesting he” and the boys “travel to Moscow to help quell the turmoil.
“Come on over!” Putin said smiling. A few days after his inauguration in May 2012, President Nizhny Tagil visited. A week later, he appointed Kholmanskikh as his envoy in the Ural Mountains.
In stark contrast, the once vehement Putin supporter later criticized authorities for beautifying statistics on salaries that did not reflect poor living conditions. Kholmanskikh’s unremarkable political career ended in June 2018 when Putin fired him, and he returned to Uralvagonzavod as chairman of the board – then step down and disappear completely from the public in January this year.
“The majority don’t see this kind of money in their wallets. When people hear about average salaries in their cities and regions, they simply assume they are being lied to, “Kholmanskikh said in a rare public appearance at a conference in December.
His sentiment followed the changing mood of the people of Nizhny Tagil, from support to opposition, after several years of declining living standards.
‘We were indeed’ Putingrad ‘. We supported the government’s agenda, “said 36-year-old Nadezhda Zhuravlyova, a local activist. “Much has changed. The agenda promoted by the government no longer meets the wishes of local residents. ”
Zhuravlyova, who worked at NTMK for seven years and is now on maternity leave, is the face of a local opposition movement, Tagil for Changes, which was founded in 2018 – the election year that gave Putin another six years.
She says protests have escalated since then, with people no longer fearing to take a public stand.
“In March we organized a mass ticket against the constitutional changes and we didn’t know many city residents (who were present) – they were not only from our circle. People just saw the protest and came forward, “said Zhuravlyova.
Zhuravlyova blames unpopular government policies such as raising the retirement age and raising waste collection rates. She says wages are rising slowly, but living conditions are deteriorating.
“Many people get their salary and immediately spend it – (on) energy bills, pay off loans … education, health care, groceries and medicines,” said Zhuravlyova.
Nemytov, who worked at NTMK for 12 years before joining the Russian Railways, says he spends nearly half of his $ 430 salary on utility bills that rise every year.
“This just isn’t enough for my family,” said the engineer, adding that he can’t take his four children on fun outings or on vacation to South Russia.
Zhuravlyov repeats his feeling and blames Putin.
“He’s the main boss. (People) do what he says, “says the worker.
Nemytov believes that the constitutional changes will not improve the lives of the workers in Nizhny Tagil.
“They only care about us as numbers on a sheet of paper. We don’t exist for them, ”says the engineer.
Litvinova reported from Moscow.
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