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Russian voting starts early for nomadic reindeer herders


MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia holds a presidential election on Sunday but voting has already begun in the flat, snow-covered expanses of the Siberian Arctic, which are home to the nomadic Nenets people who herd reindeer.

Since late February, 282 members of the Nenets community, as well as some oil industry workers, have cast their ballots.

Kremlin politics and the six-lane motorways of Moscow may feel a world away in the Nenets Autonomous Region, 1,000 miles (1,570 km) northeast of the capital, where temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Celsius.

The area has no roads but politics reaches it anyway, thanks to Maria Uglovaya, her helicopter and a handful of ballot boxes.

"A few months ago, we met with the head of one of the communities and he told us where they and their herds would be during these two weeks," said Uglovaya, deputy head of the regional election commission.

"Then we flew 400 km to meet them. If their coordinates had been even a few points off, we would never have found them. The territory is vast," she said. Eight herders were unable to vote because they did not make it in time to the meeting point, which was marked by a reindeer hide tent.

Election officials can only reach the nomadic voters when weather permits. A blizzard last week saw visibility in some areas drop as low 10 meters, interrupting their daily helicopter flights.

Members of the community only visit the local capital, the small town of Naryan Mar, to renew passports and bring pregnant women to the maternity ward, said Uglovaya, who lives in the town.

So strangers, especially ones with ballot boxes, are a rare event and the atmosphere is festive, even though the outcome of the election is not seriously in doubt. President Vladimir Putin is expected to win a fourth term in office.

"Who the president is has an impact on us, yes," said a member of the community, Elena Tuleeva, 39. "If there are some laws there, they reach us too."

Tuleeva, who has always voted for Putin, said she knew several candidates in the race as she'd seen them on television.

"If the weather is good, we put up the satellite dish and then we watch the news," she said. The dish is mounted on a sleigh to make it easier to move when looking for signal.

For the Nenets, environmental issues are where the government has the most direct impact on daily life.

"They keep building these oil fields around us ... In one area we go sometimes, they've put up all these drills and pipes, and people drive all over. Soon there won't be any pasture ground there for our herd at all."

Uglovaya, who has worked for Russia's electoral system for two years, agreed.

"The Nenets, they see themselves as part of the earth, as part of the land ... That's why, even if they're so far-removed, they vote," she said.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

   

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