Saint Petersburg turns its back on Putin
Saint Petersburg - As protests against the rule of Vladimir Putin shake Russia, his popularity is also eroding in Saint Petersburg, the city where he was born and built his political career.
Only 47% of the electorate in Russia's second city intend to vote for the strongman prime minister in the March 4 presidential elections, according to an opinion poll published this month by the VTsIOM pollster.
It would be a sharp contrast with his poll results in Saint Petersburg in the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 - where he won 62% and 75% respectively, and his local ratings outstripped nationwide results.
"A new class of people who have achieved a decent lifestyle and who want change has emerged in Saint Petersburg, just as in Moscow," Roman Mogilevsky, director of the Social Information Agency, a polling agency, said.
"The fact that Putin is a native of Saint Petersburg -'one of us' - does not mean anything to them any longer, as it used to 12 years ago," he added.
The independent pollster gives Putin a poll rating of just 34% for the presidential elections, a point more than the disappointing 33% garnered by his United Russia Party in the December 4 parliamentary elections.
Putin was born in the city known as Leningrad in 1952 and worked in the municipal government under his mentor, then mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who helped the ex-KGB agent forge his political career.
He has always made much of his connection to the former imperial capital and critics have long alleged that local government and big state conglomerates are run by a clique of Putin's ex-security service colleagues from the city.
Outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev and the chief executive of state gas giant Gazprom Alexei Miller are also both natives of Saint Petersburg.
But Putin is now facing a nationwide protest movement, unprecedented since his rise to power, in the wake of December parliamentary elections which critics say were rigged.
Since December, tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets in Moscow to demand "Russia without Putin". Demonstrations in Saint Petersburg have mustered around 10 000.
And there is much to anger Saint Petersburg residents beyond a frustration with Putin.
Many buildings in its Unesco-listed historic centre are clearly in need of the most urgent restoration while lobby groups repeatedly denounce big business for attempts to encroach on historic areas.
Recent winters saw pavements stack up with ice and snow while pedestrians were killed by falling icicles after communal services failed to deal properly with snowfalls and freezing weather.
Saint Petersburg's residents still proudly hold their reputation for alternative, intellectual thinking that goes back to the great novelists of the 19th century and the dissident movement in the Soviet Union.
"To me Putin is a dictator who imprisoned [anti-Kremlin tycoon] Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who abolished freedom of the press, and is leading the country into a dead end," said 55-year-old Saint Petersburg resident Galina Asafiyeva.
"I am ashamed that he is from Saint Petersburg," she added.
Even Putin's own campaign team in the city has admitted that they face a much tougher election campaign this time round and have pledged to pull out all the stops to ensure a strong performance in his hometown.
"The situation in Saint Petersburg is different now from what it used to be in the past. There are problems. The population no longer has confidence in elections in general," said Putin's local campaign chief, Vladimir Litvinenko.
Putin's campaign staff "must do everything possible" so that he gets more than 50% of the vote in the city which once used to be his stronghold, Litvinenko said.
"As the candidate's birthplace, Saint Petersburg must point the way for other regions, not only in terms of turnout, but also in terms of the ballots cast" for Putin, he said.
But the vote must be fair and "without any manipulations", he added.