Novoe Vremya magazine has done some research into the mood of the Russian electorate, less than three months before voting day. It cites a surprising figure: two-thirds of respondents believe that the outcome of the Duma elections will not change anything in Russia, and that “everything will remain as usual” regardless of the election results (from a poll done by the Agency for Regional Political Research). Only 27% of respondents hope that “if all voters turn out to vote, we will have a good Duma.”
This low level of confidence in expressions of the people’s will is attributed by Novoe Vremya to the fact that most people in Russia still think of politics in “monarchist” (or “presidential”) terms.
Only 12% of respondents consider the parliament worthy of running the country; 15% say the Cabinet is worthy; and 69% are firmly convinced that the country should be run by the president.
No matter how much talk there is of the importance of the parliament’s legislative activity, most people believe that laws aren’t observed anyway, and whoever has the most power will rule.
And the head of state does have the most power, naturally: as everyone knows, Russia is a presidential republic.
Not surprisingly, most people in Russia (even those who firmly intend to vote in December) feel no strong allegiance to any political party, says Novoe Vremya. For the ordinary voter in Russia, there is no practical logic involved in political choice. There is nothing even approximating this chain of reasoning: “I choose a party, I become a supporter or member of that party; by voting for it, I help it to enter the Duma and gain more influence there; my party designs or supports legislation that is advantageous for me.”
Actually, around half of poll respondents now say they will certainly vote in December; the other half are the so-called “swamp” which the parties fight for during the election campaign. However, only 40% of those who definitely intend to vote have already decided whom to vote for. In other words, according to Novoe Vremya, the truly conscious electorate amounts to no more than 20% of all voters.
The National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), under the direction of Yuri Levada, compiled the results of many years of research into a report titled “Soviet People in Post-Soviet Russia.” Extracts from this report have been published in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly.
According to these figures, 60% of respondents believe there have been some very significant changes in this country in recent years. However, half of respondents say nothing much has changed in their own lives. And almost 45% are skeptical about the regime’s official reform agenda, saying it would have been better to “leave things as they were” in 1985; only 33% disagree with this view, the remaining respondents being uncertain.
VTsIOM senior analyst Boris Dubin explains in Moskovskie Novosti that such “skeptics” are mostly from the older age groups, people who managed to achieve something under the previous system and lost status when the Soviet Union collapsed. However, the older generation is gradually being joined by people from other age groups: those who have failed to adapt to new circumstances.
There are plenty of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg who think this way, but even more in the regions. Their voting preferences are not very clearly defined: some vote for the Communists, and some for “various centrists such as Unity.” Many used to be Yabloko supporters, but have also switched to the center now. But VTsIOM has found that the young people in this category are choosing Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party; so that’s why Zhirinovsky has such unshakeable confidence in what tomorrow will bring!
Boris Dubin concludes that the overall impression is fairly disheartening: “It turns out that Russia lacks strong, progressive, authoritative groups that might link their fate to large-scale social changes.”
As many and varied observers have noted repeatedly, civil society has failed to take shape in Russia. And that is precisely why ordinary voters don’t want any changes, don’t have any hopes, and are prepared to resign themselves to the status quo.
Moreover, Dubin warns that “this entails self-isolation for Russia and wariness or hostility towards all ‘outsiders’.”
It’s also unfortunate that Russian society may be described as “having abandoned reading, and discussion of what is read, in favor of the television screen.” And as everyone knows, the major television channels have been brought entirely under state control, and now offer a purely official perspective on current events.
Under the circumstances, as Rodnaya Gazeta observes, it’s not surprising that most of the 44 parties in the parliamentary campaign are finding it difficult to achieve their main objective: reducing the vast psychological distance between the parties and voters.
Indeed, this is far from easy. Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, says in an interview with Rodnaya Gazeta that all party advertising is deliberately uninformative – instead, it is aimed at demonstrating “closeness to the people.” Makarenko says: “The ads show the faces of ordinary people talking about the party; or famous figures from Russian history and culture, with whom the party is trying to associate itself.” All this is accompanied by assurances that the party is honest and prepared to look after the public good. None of the nation’s actual problems are specified; simply in order not to scare off voters. Makarenko stresses that huge amounts of money are now being spent on this strange form of self-promotion.
However, all these clone parties have very low chances of making it into the Duma; only five parties have a real chance of crossing the 5% threshold, “and we know which ones they are.”
Nevertheless, the efforts of other parties are not entirely useless. Firstly, as Rodnaya Gazeta notes, the law says that if a party fails to participate in elections, it will lose its registration. Secondly, most of the minor parties are acting with a view to some sort of benefits.
If a party is mounting an extensive advertising campaign without providing any specific information about itself, perhaps “it is prepared to have someone else enter that space and say whatever they please.”
Actually, even the leading parties aren’t all that different from each other; at any rate, not if we judge them by their policy programs, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal. All of them call for fighting poverty, cutting taxes, increasing industrial output, fighting corruption, and more investment in science and education.
Some parties propose doubling the GDP; others propose doubling revenue within four years; and others propose increasing the notorious “natural resources rent.” However, Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal observes that “the details under discussion”, even though they relate to some of the most important state issues, are essentially turned into “party identification instruments”: rather like calling-cards for the parties. “For example, we’re Yabloko because we stand for completely abolishing conscription, and that’s the big difference between us and the Union of Right Forces; or we’re the Glaziev people because we stand for radically raising natural resources rent; or we stand for bringing back the death penalty, so we’re the Raikov people.”
Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal observer Mikhail Fishman says: “Elections in Russia are a performance, a spectacle, in the sense that voters can sit down, relax, and wait for the promised concert according to the program. And all the parties, Duma members, and officials – all those who are considered to be the regime in Russia, and ususally spoken of as ‘they’ – will try to guess the voter’s attitudes and whims; they will obligingly sing and dance if the nation asks them to do so, courting the nation and flattering it.”
One of the main goals of United Russia, for example, is to ensure that it doesn’t bear too great a resemblance to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: “That is, in the eyes of voters United Russia ought to be just like the CPSU – the main party and the only party, closely linked to the state, with its bureaucrat patrons remaining in the bureaucracy and being seen as the regime; but at the same time, there needs to be an advantageous difference from the elderly Politburo members fixed in the nation’s memory.”
To tell the truth, this isn’t an easy task: for instance, if Boris Gryzlov quits the Interior Ministry before becoming a United Russia member, what use would “ordinary citizen Gryzlov” be? So after United Russia’s pre-campaign congress, which will be the last of the party congresses (it’s scheduled for September 20, and will mark the end of the first stage of the campaign), Gryzlov will only take a leave of absence from the Interior Ministry. Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says he will only resign as Interior Minister after the elections, “in order to move straight into the Duma speaker’s chair.”
But no matter how determined United Russia may be to demonstrate its sincerity, in the hope of winning voter support, it still needs to be extremely cautious. As Boris Makarenko observes in an article for Rodnaya Gazeta: “Whenever United Russia tries to show a will of its own and proposes something of its own accord, its popularity rating starts to fall. But whenever it says ‘we’re the president’s party, we support him and he supports us’ – its rating is stable.”
Obviously, when you’re onto a good thing, you stick to it. What need for elaborate political tactics, when they only make things worse for the party?
But other parties do have to resort to elaborate measures. For example, Liberal Russia – the party of Boris Berezovsky’s supporters – not only made special yellow jerseys for delegates at its party congress, reading “Berezovsky team 2003” (only Ivan Rybkin actually wore one), but staged a real spectacle during the congress itself.
Participating in virtual form, from London, Berezovsky described the party as “the only real opposition which the regime is fighting” (quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta). Then some people in ski-masks and camouflage got up on the stage, with harsh shouts of: “Nobody move! We’re checking your identity papers!” The audience became alarmed, and party co-chairman Viktor Kurochkin explained: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is only a joke – but as long as the current regime remains in power, something like this could happen for real at any moment!”
As for Boris Berezovsky, after the decision was made in London to grant him political refugee status, he gave interviews to many Russian papers and described in detail his intention to take part in the Russian parliamentary campaign: running for the Duma only via the federal electoral list of his own party. However, there have also been many media reports naming various regions where political refugee Berezovsky is quite likely to become a single-mandate district candidate – from Ivan-Gorod to the Komi-Permiatsk autonomous district.
Berezovsky is promising he will return to Russia if he is elected and gains parliamentary immunity. Meanwhile, he intends to fight the regime from abroad. As he put it in an interview with Novaya Gazeta: “I am not a vindictive person. I have a precise, specific goal: to replace the Putin regime. I am pursuing that goal consistently, explaining all my moves, not hiding anything from anyone.”
That last phrase is rather strongly reminiscent of Karl Marx: “Communists consider it shameful to conceal their views.”
That is not surprising. Novoe Vremya magazine says that Berezovsky, like many of his contemporaries in Russia, has largely remained “a Soviet person in a post-Soviet world.” More precisely, he remains a Russian oligarch with the “intelligentsia syndrome” traditional for Russia.
Success in business only interests Berezovsky insofar as it serves to launch his political career. As Denis Dragunsky observes in Novoe Vremya, the post-Soviet personality is characterized by being “vain about status and obsessed with ideology” – and in that sense, Berezovsky is a quintessentially post-Soviet personality: “Pure specimens of this type, like pure specimens of any other type, are extremely rarely seen in nature. But components of this personality type are present throughout the entire Russian business community.”
Predictably, Berezovsky has a very different view of the Russian business community. He commented on the YUKOS affair to Novaya Gazeta: “The Yeltsin years showed that millions of people are prepared to take responsibility for their own lives and the fates of their families – in other words, to be independent. However, it turns out that these people are not prepared to defend their independence. They are prepared to accept it; but when the time comes to fight for it, they have proved incapable of fighting.” All this, says Berezovsky, carries the risk of engendering a totalitarian system.
And the problem does not lie in Vladimir Putin as an individual. Berezovsky says he has no personal feelings about Putin: “And that was actually one of the reasons he and I reached a parting of the ways: he was always taking our relations to the personal level.”
For example, says Berezovsky, whenever he warned Putin that any of his decisions were unconstitutional, he always heard the same reply: “Well, after all, you did ask me to become president.”
And that’s true, Berezovsky notes; though he explains that Putin was not selected as a suitable candidate to succeed Yeltsin “for his decorative qualities” – rather, he was chosen because he promised to continue Yeltsin’s reforms. But he did not keep his promises, and Berezovsky told him openly: “You have changed; I am not being disloyal to you, but I will stand by my beliefs; though you are not being true to your beliefs.” As Berezovsky puts it, relations between him and Putin were like “relations between the blind and the deaf-mute.”
However, some points in Berezovsky’s Novaya Gazeta interview give rise to serious doubts about whether he is truly disinterested with respect to Putin.
In speaking of Putin’s relations with the media, Berezovsky claims that “journalists have not accepted Putin,” primarily due to increased pressure on the media: “Especially compared to the situation under Yeltsin, when people were free to speak their mind.”
But Berezovsky does not leave it there; rather venomously, he adds: “Putin is unsatisfactory for journalists in an intellectual sense. His only memorable phrases are along the lines of ‘killing them off in the toilets’, ‘cutting it off so that nothing will grow back’, ‘you’ll get sick of eating dust’, and so on. There is not a single thought of any real substance. And journalists want to hear fresh thoughts, not just to have something to report.”
After hearing statements like that, one is tempted to believe in Berezovsky’s claims that “agents of Moscow” have made numerous attempts on his life. Actually, it would be strange to doubt this, since Berezovsky has been believed by Scotland Yard, the British government, and the London Magistrates Court.
As for relations with journalists – who describe themselves as merely intermediaries in establishing communications between the regime and society – it’s quite possible that the current regime isn’t really interested in establishing such communications.
That is the view of Liliya Shevtsova, a well-known political analyst and senior researcher at the Carnegie Center in Moscow; she has discussed the YUKOS affair in this context.
The regime’s position in this extremely confusing situation still remains a mystery – not only for the Russian public, but even for most Western observers. In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Shevtsova says: “Observers in Paris, Washington, and Berlin have wanted to know what is really going on in Moscow. I counted 18 different explanations for the YUKOS affair itself, its roots, its motives, its prospects, and so on. But all were either personal opinions or conspiracy theories.” There is still no official interpretation.
Meanwhile, says Shevtsova, in the Yeltsin era the regime “might have been insincere in explaining its actions to us, but it still considered that an explanation was necessary.” Moreover, there were “channels of information not controlled by the Kremlin: the parliament, the media, social institutions close to the regime…” For example, that was how everyone found out that “the call-girl incident” was not the real reason why Yuri Skuratov was dismissed from the post of prosecutor general.
But the current regime simply sees no need to give the people any explanations: “Sincere, insincere, or anything else. It is silent. And there is nothing to compensate for this shortage of communication, since unofficial information channels have been closed off.”
Shevtsova says: “In the Putin regime we can see a fundamental orientation towards secrecy; this is one of the regime’s systemic characteristics.”
The election campaign of United Russia hasn’t changed this characteristic in the least.
In the opinion of Shevtsova, United Russia, this party of the nomenklatura, will undoubtedly help Putin to reach some tactical objectives: pass the required laws through the Duma, call a recalcitrant governor into line, and so on. However, it won’t ensure electoral support for the president – on the contrary, says Shevtsova, “it is a parasite on Putin’s own popularity rating.”
The president doesn’t need United Russia; the bureaucracy, which actually owns United Russia, needs this party. In short, this is again “more likely to be a mechanism of separating the leader from society rather than drawing them closer.”
Apparently, says Shevtsova, the president is generally satisfied with this situation: “Had Putin wanted a dialogue with the citizenry, he would have found some other way,” bypassing various groupings of bureaucrats striving for power. According to Shevtsova, the absence of safe communication between the national leader and the masses is one of the major and most unpleasant peculiarities of the Russian “mega-presidency” model of governance.
This may, in fact, be one of the weakest points of the current policy of the Kremlin. At any rate, Berezovsky confidently claims: “A significant process of aversion towards Putin and his regime is taking place in the elites. The next leader is the only thing that matters.” No leader is available so far, says Berezovsky, but he’ll come along very soon.
Berezovsky is quoted in Novaya Gazeta as saying: “It seems nowadays that everything is a swamp – no matter where one goes, everything’s collapsing. However, there are several resolute people in Russia already who are ready to take action. Therefore, Putin won’t be reelected for another term in office.”
It’s hard to tell whether “resolute people” ready for serious political action (rather than parties making dramatic statements and performances at their congresses) are actually available in Russia. But it is quite evident that freedom of speech during the election campaign in Russia is still available to the full extent – at least at the level of the print media.