THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN AND VTSIOM OPINION POLLS: ANOTHER VERSION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

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On the eve of the official start of the election campaign, commercials of political parties on TV have already become more frequent than ads for either sanitary pads or beer.

Meanwhile, Profil magazine notes that only 15 years ago there were practically no elections in this country: “there was only a performance that even ceased to be funny by the end.” Then, as everyone remembers, there was enthusiasm for democratic procedures in the first years of perestroika, which was stultified by the historic presidential election of 1996 under the notorious “Vote or Lose Out” slogan.

After political strategies led to the victory of the extremely unpopular acting president, the political elite came to the conclusion that it is possible to impose anything and anyone on the electorate if you have enough money and the people have television. The citizenry, in turn, concluded that elections had lost their meaning, for those “at the top” will cook the results anyway, since everything is decided in advance. Profil thinks both these inferences are wrong.

Of course, the administrative resource is a mighty weapon, and up to the very day of an election “the interested people” attempt to reduce people’s opportunities of a real choice. One of the means of doing this is eliminating undesirable candidates. However, as Profil stresses, the deciding vote in elections themselves still belongs to voters, since “otherwise no one would spend so much money, time, and effort on election campaigns”. Thus, people are allegedly misled: something still depends on them.

The statement that the government still appreciates people’s opinion to some extent may be proven by the current rearrangement of the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

Those who are interested in data of opinion polls must have noticed that there is constant discrepancy between statistics of Yury Levada’s polling agency and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) controlled by the Presidential Administration.

Here is one of the latest articles on this topic. On August 22, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported, “On Wednesday, VTsIOM stated that the Communist Party (CPRF) had become more popular than United Russia, by 5%. However, on Thursday, the Public Opinion Foundation reported that United Russia was not only the leader, but had even increased its popularity compared to that of the Communists, which started to decrease in mid-August.”

Furthermore, Nezavisimaya Gazeta has noted that according to VTsIOM, the CPRF has been the leader for almost the whole year, only lagging behind United Russia in July (United Russia was supported by 27% of respondents and the former by 26%). But in August ratings of the parties returned to their initial positions: the CPRF was supported by 28% and United Russia by 23%.

The figures published by FOM are quite different. In spring and in early summer FOM really stated that the government party lagged behind the left. However, having mended the situation in July, United Russia is still the leader.

Thus, the newspaper concludes that statistics of Yuri Levada’s team at VTsIOM are actually opposite to those produced by Alexander Oslon’s team at FOM. Of course, this discrepancy drew annoyance at the top. Nezavisimaya Gazeta asks, “Isn’t the current harassment of Levada’s team caused by this? It is not ruled out that the change of management at VTsIOM was designed in order to gain the coveted uniformity in reports of the public opinion.”

Yezhenedelny Zhurnal says that rating of a politician or a political party is just an indirect and approximate estimate of the state of public opinion as calculated by some particular polling agency by methods known only to that agency. Unfortunately, as the journal notes, most of the political elite tends to take ratings literally, as “the attitude of the nation to the government and its representatives reflected in figures, something like a stock market index.”

Therefore, the elite believes that publication of ratings is an effective instrument of influence over the public opinion. Yezhenedelny Zhurnal says in this connection, “If you could control the Dow Jones index or fake its results, you would make a lot of money.”

This is what the government intends to gain now: to gain control over fluctuations of political ratings. Results of opinion polls should be uniform and predictable.

Therefore, as Yezhenedelny Zhurnal says, the state intends to oust Levada under the cover of the customary rhetoric of economic changes, having failed to set up effective dialogue with him.

Moskovskie Novosti has published the opinion of Levada’s colleague, Professor Vladimir Shlyapentokh from the University of Michigan, in this connection. He said, “Today’s VTsIOM will be gone within a few months. Since there is no civil society in Russia, it’s is no wonder that Levada has been left face to face all alone with the Presidential Administration.”

Shlyapentokh has noted that the only politician to condemn the “privatization” of VTsIOM was Boris Nemtsov. However, even he has not promised any action aimed at defending Levada.

Levada must have been aware that he has been working in a dangerous climate. Indeed, his remark that for all his high ratings, Vladimir Putin is still viewed as “the president of hope”, may cost a lot. Meanwhile, in the view of VTsIOM, this attitude toward the president is extremely hazardous for him.

As Yury Levada has announced in his interview to Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, “half of Russians, according to statistics of July, have gotten tired of expecting changes in he country from Putin”.

Moreover, Levada is convinced that in the following few years the number of those “disappointed” is likely to increase. “Time will come to pay the bills received by the current team,” the journal notes.

Therefore, as Levada believes, the actual fight today is for results of the election of 2008, which will be without the current president. “This will be the time of exacerbation of the problems, to which people are reacting patiently today hoping that the president and his team will do something about them.”

This certainly worries our upper echelons of the government. Levada has noted, “The current governing team takes as much interest in public opinion as no one has ever done before.”

The director of VTsIOM asserts that the present hosts of the Kremlin have no history or a serious backup, although no one seems to seriously threaten them. Hence the exaggerated attention to opinion polls and their results. The very chance that something may be wrong seems perilous.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of things that are going wrong, but it is important that people should take the hardships “right”: as temporary ones.

This is a tradition adopted from the Communist era: the life is not that good, but we are moving forward steadily and even see some bright spot in a distance. Therefore, VTsIOM’s distressing calculations are extremely untimely. There is no wonder that the government has made up its mind to “introduce sociological order to the country”.

Profil states that the scale of the current government does not allow it to fulfill any urgent tasks except for the “task of self-preservation”.

At the same time, all expectations of people of the 2000 election campaign are fulfilled just the other way round. There is a crackdown on democratic freedoms in the country, while the power of bureaucracy is gaining strength. The current version of the government party is aimed at enhancing this trend.

However, even after the reorganization of VTsIOM United Russia will hardly be confident about people’s love. That is why the government party so strongly aspires to ingratiate with the electorate. Among the efforts aimed at this are the recent crackdowns on tycoons, different variants of the case of “turnskins in epaulettes”, and numerous cases of usage of the “administrative resource” in regional elections.

Nevertheless, as Komsomolskaya Pravda has reported referring to an experts’ forecast conducted by the Strategic Analysis Center and the Voice of People public opinion center that if the election took place next Sunday, the CPRF would win it (it has gained 7.42 points). It is followed by United Russia (6.02 points), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR, 4.16 points), Yabloko (3.6 points), the Union of Right Forces (URF, 3.22), and the People’s Party (3.02). strangely enough, this poll was conducted on July 26, when both VTsIOM and FOM stated that the rating of the CPRF was larger than that of United Russia. And the experts were all respectable people: there were no sociologists among them – only political analysts, journalists, politicians, and experts of special services. They cannot be disbelieved.

In short, it is clear that not everything is smooth with United Russia. However, not everything is lost yet. In observers’ views, the main task of Kremlin political analysts is not only reinforcement of positions of the government party but also weakening of positions of its opponents. There are different methods of doing this.

Last Sunday, on the third day of the work of the Election 2003 public-political forum, prominent politician and economist Sergei Glaziev finally officially announced foundation of a “wide people’s patriotic coalition”.

The coalition agreement has been signed by 15 organizations. Thus, in observers’ opinions, the Kremlin has succeeded with creation of the second “left column”. Meanwhile, Argumenty I Fakty pays attention to the arguments about whose votes may be taken by Glaziev’s coalition: those of the CPRF or those of United Russia.

Meanwhile, the new left behave pretty aggressively. The newspaper Kommersant has reported that Glaziev announced at the presentation of his coalition that he intends to “unite all people whose heart is aching for the fatherland”. “Being together, we’ll make the government respect interests of common people,” Glaziev has promised. Dmitry Rogozin, his colleague from the bloc, has noted with a challenge, “Our initiative is already now criticized by those who defend narrow interests of their parties: they think us not to be a serious organization. Then why have you been scared so much, sirs?”

This question was addressed to the Communists, who, in the meantime, were very calm and reluctant to participate in the public polemics with their left flank neighbors. A CPRF official has explained to Kommersant why the party has refused to join the new coalition for all Glaziev’s appeals. He has said, “If we join this coalition, we’ll betray our voters, since we suspect that this coalition was initiated by the Kremlin in order to hinder the CPRF.” Rogozin has even resorted to the rhetoric announcement, “All let all the talks that someone is standing behind us be on the conscience of these bastards.”

Meanwhile, in the view of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Glaziev’s aspirations to entice the CPRF to be his ally look ridiculous. “Fearing to look a bastard to deputy Rogozin, a Nezavisimaya Gazeta still has to state that this project looks as if Liberia were asking the US not only to assign an army corps to it but also join the Liberia-US-Ethiopia triple union.”

As for the army corps, i.e. the assistance of sponsors and administrative support, Glaziev is likely to get them but to a modest degree. The newspaper notes, “It is obvious for a professional that Glaziev’s new organization does not have even an embryo of infrastructure comparable to the intricate network of branches of the CPRF, while the Kremlin, in turn, has more important party projects. It is hard to believe that the state machine will work for Glaziev and Rogozin as intensively as it works for United Russia.

Meanwhile, experts of Vremya Novostei believe that Glaziev made too much haste announcing his political independence. This was his strategic error. “If he had consented to the place at the beginning of the federal list of the Communists, he would have added some votes to the Communists among intelligentsia and simultaneously would have avoided political suicide.”

Today even optimists shrug their shoulders trying to estimate the staff and consequently chances for success of the Glaziev coalition. Indeed, even Rogozin, explaining his joining the coalition by the belief in its abilities, is just using his last political chance: everyone remembers his recent desperate attempts to choose between the government parties.

As for Georgy Shpak and Viktor Gerashchenko, who have been invited to adorn the new bloc with their names, the things seem to be even simpler as far as they are concerned. “Shpak will retire next year, and this will be a change of activities for him. And for Gerashchenko it is a means of returning to public politics.”

The co-existence of Yabloko deputy Vyacheslav Igrunov and former Krasnodar governor Nikolai Kondratenko has given the newspaper a reason for stating that Glaziev, who has left the Communists with a scandal, has become “the last chance for marginal and unaccommodating politicians”.

However, as Novye Izvestia believes, the CPRF is not a loss for Glaziev today. “However, it is necessary to use the Communist party as a spring board for the 2008 election.” But for this purpose it is necessary either to lead the party (which is hardly possible) or to cut off a piece of it. Novye Izvestia notes that this piece should be large, since “5% are good enough for Duma elections, but this figure will not do in presidential ones.”

Meanwhile, as Dmitry Oreshkin has written in Literaturnaya Gazeta, one should not rule out victories of Glaziev, who is scandalously gaining popularity, over Zyuganov, who has bored everyone already. It is also worthwhile to take into account the fact that today’s political ideals of most Russians are “something social-democratic, laborist-trade-unionlike, i.e. something vaguely pink”. Therefore, there is no wonder that “the image of the CPRF is moving toward laborism and social democracy much more rapidly than the party itself.” And voters support the image rather that the essence, and politicians are well aware of this fact. Oreshkin has noted that if earlier the leftward drift of the electorate played into the Communists’ hands exclusively, now a few more players have rushed to the “social-democratic field”.

Along with Glaziev’s bloc, there is People’s Party led by Gennady Raikov, the project born by the St. Petersburg part of the elite surrounding Kremlin to take its revenge on its “family” part.

Oreshkin says that Raikov is apparently a spare option of the centrist leader. As Vremya Novostei recently reported, the leader of People’s Party announced at the Election 2003 forum the main goals of the party: reinforcement of state government, liquidation of poverty, creation of a normal family budget, restoration of morals and spirituality.

Besides, Raikov never misses a chance to repeat the position of the party regarding the necessity to resume the death sentence for particularly hard crimes: “We are doing our best to convince the president that the death sentence is necessary.”

In this anxious time, such announcements are likely to attract to the party some people who are longing for introduction of strict order in the country.

Finally the main trump of Raikov’s party sounds as follows: “We are the party, behind which there are no oligarchs.” Thus, all peculiarities of mass perception have been taken into account.

As Literaturnaya Gazeta says, according to the “general plan”, Raikov should not take over Gryzlov’s votes: he is supposed to take them over from Zyuganov. In other words, the two centrist parties (or the two Kremlin’s parties) “should diverge in order not to be in one another’s way. United Russia should take a step to the right, while People’s Party should take a step to the left.” And Glaziev should be left for intellectuals with social-democratic views.

However, all these intricate political calculations may prove to be insufficiently effective because of the absence of trustworthy information.

Meanwhile, as the press reports, censorship is becoming fashionable again. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to judge about the country’s political life by TV reports devoted to senior authorities of the country. As Alexei Bogaturov has written in Rodnaya Gazeta, “public opinion is losing the guidelines in the handmade political-informational space.” Another step in this direction is reorganization of VTsIOM.

Rodnaya Gazeta doubts the popular opinion that everything initiated by the government is for its benefit. Bogaturov says that today the government “is ousting the sector of independent research, including public opinion study, from the informational and analytical spheres.” At the same time, the government is obviously unable to fulfill the task of its own intellectual and analytical provision. There is a hazard that fully relying on controllable structures and the “administrative resource”, the government may deliberately get blinded on the very eve of the elections.

It is almost unbelievable that adults, powerful adults, could display such a childish reaction to problems. Only a child would get angry with a mirror for showing an insufficiently attractive reflection. There are also fairy-tale characters, like Snow White’s stepmother, ready to punish a looking glass for reporting that someone else is more beautiful than its owner. This behavior also resembles that of an emperor who doesn’tt believe his own eyes, but believes the chorus of noble flatterers asserting that he looks wonderful in his new clothes.

Need it be pointed out that all such fairy-tale characters come to a rather unfortunate end?

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