The last week of the election campaign: moving towards an imitation of civil society, with prosthetic political parties


Monday, December 1, was the last day when the media was allowed to publish election forecasts. The press took full advantage of this opportunity – although the polls published turned out to hold no particularly comforting news for most of the parties.

As the Kommersant newspaper reported, only the United Russia party can be pleased with the results of the latest polls – its support rating has been rising rapidly in recent weeks, along with that of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). As everyone knows, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky was even barred from television debates on the NTV network for his excessive zeal in demonstrating his political passions; but his efforts have not been in vain, since the LDPR is predicted to get past the 5% threshold for sure.

The prospects look bleak for United Russia’s traditional opponents, the Communists: their popularity dropped to a record low in November. Kommersant considers the ARPI agency’s figure of 9% to be too low, but even if the Communist Party (CPRF) gets 23% of the vote, as Yuri Levada’s VTsIOM-A agency promises, it will still be far behind United Russia.

Alexander Oslon, head of the Public Opinion Foundation, told Kommersant: “The clear downward trend for the CPRF can be attributed to an active anti-communist campaign in the media, which is instilling doubts in the minds of the party’s wavering supporters.”

In Novaya Gazeta, Boris Kagarlitsky says: “The Communists have never had an election campaign as bad as this one.” The “traditionalist conservatives” who used to vote for the CPRF, says Kagarlitsky, are now “marching in line and singing” as they move to United Russia. And many leftists find the CPRF in its present form “so annoying that despite their distaste for the Kremlin, many are likely to stay home or vote against all candidates.”

What’s more, as Alexander Oslon pointed out to Kommersant, the left-wing electorate has a “new doorway” – the Motherland bloc (Rodina). According to the Public Opinion Foundation, educated leftist voters are the most likely to support Motherland.

Kommersant-Vlast magazine says the CPRF leadership kept hoping for a long time that it could retain the young and promising Sergei Glaziev in its ranks. The CPRF described the creation of the Motherland bloc as a provocation by the Kremlin; and Glaziev’s own statements about the need for a broad coalition of patriotic forces were viewed as evidence that the main aim of Glaziev’s bloc was to take as many votes as possible away from the CPRF.

However, Kommersant-Vlast points out, during the election campaign the bloc’s unofficial leader has clearly been Dmitri Rogozin – Motherland campaign manager and chairman of the Duma international affairs committee. As Kommersant-Vlast puts it, during the television debates Rogozin has played the role of “a decent version of Zhirinovsky,” promising to send Anatoly Chubais and all the other reformers to jail at the first opportunity. Kommersant-Vlast says: “The public took note of a new performer, and Motherland’s rating immediately started to rise.” Indeed, the most diverse sources now consider it quite likely that Motherland will make it into the Duma; but the bloc has already achieved its main aim – the CPRF has lost some votes from the left-wing electorate.

In Novaya Gazeta, Pavel Voshchanov says: “Anti-communism hasn’t really been a feature of this campaign. The scare tactics used to be much worse in previous campaigns.” This time, the main idea was “to link the Communists with the oligarchs, so that in voters’ minds they would merge into one lump of everything that is bad.” And the picture has turned out to be a vivid one: the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky “robbed the treasury and gave money to the CPRF,” and so did the oligarch Boris Berezovsky from London, as well as the executive Viktor Vidmanov from Rosagropromstroi.

These themes have been extensively used as arguments in the political battle, constantly being discussed on television – drawing equally constant protests from the Communists, all ignored entirely by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

According to the predictions of the National Political Forecasting Agency, reported by Gazeta, the CPRF – together with leftist candidates elected in single-mandate districts – could get between 108 and 123 Duma seats. Gazeta points out that this counts as a defeat compared to the last elections: “In 1999, the Communists won 138 seats.”

But United Russia can count on getting 173 seats in the future parliament; and together with its single-mandate candidates, as well as parties and blocs inclined to support United Russia (the People’s Party, the Russia’s Renaissance party and Party of Life, the Motherland bloc, the Agrarian Party), the combined pro-Kremlin forces will have 233 seats.

In an extensive interview published by the Vedomosti newspaper, Gennadi Zyuganov said: “This is the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign ever. Under the cover of the fair elections agreement, the Kremlin is actually waging a war of extermination against its opponents.”

In Zyuganov’s view, the entire course of the campaign resembles a thoroughly-planned special operation. Insidious “embryo parties” have been created “in test-tubes” – first among them is the LDPR, as well as the abovementioned Motherland bloc, and the party of “two speakers in the same flask,” and, of course, the People’s Party led by Gennadi Raikov.

Each of these “embryos” has managed to “bite off” a few percentage points of the vote from the Communists. And the television airwaves are “full of nothing but campaign ads for United Russia.” All this, says Zyuganov, can only have one meaning: “The Kremlin is trying to appoint the parliament.”

The CPRF, according to its leader, is viewed by the Kremlin as its main opponent: “Since they understand perfectly well that the large number of votes we will get will immediately create a dangerous claimant to the post of president, an obstacle to Putin’s re-election for a second term.”

Zyuganov believes the Communists are capable of doing this: “And therefore, all the talk of us getting only 13-15% of the vote is just an orientation mark for election fraud.” In Zyuganov’s view, the Kremlin has given regional leaders instructions to that effect, “seeking to turn them into criminals.” Zyuganov says: “I am warning the regional leaders that they will be held accountable, in the name of all our voters.”

At the same time, the CPRF leader stated rather ominously that if election fraud does indeed take place, and the new Duma is not sufficiently representative of “the interests of millions of citizens who vote for the Communists, in future the people will have no other option but to tear up paving-stones.” The interviewer asked a direct question: “In other words, you don’t rule out the possibility of the political battle moving out of the parliament and into the streets?” And Zyuganov gave an equally direct answer: “The scenario for developments here may be even worse and more frightening than in Georgia.”

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, Effective Policy Foundation director Gleb Pavlovsky spoke fairly openly about how electoral commissions manage to produce the desired voting results.

Pavlovsky explained: “An electoral commission is essentially a measuring device, for measuring expressions of the people’s will. Like any device, it has a margin of error – a device might measure things imprecisely and approximately, or precisely…” It isn’t hard to guess that in Russia the measurements are more often approximate.

Moreover, says Pavlovsky, if elections are defined as the citizenry delegating its representatives into government, the measurement of opinion ought to be done in the name of the citizenry. But in Russia, electoral commissions are firmly embedded in the bureaucratic hierarchy; they look to the state, not to voters. “This is a kind of prosecutor’s office for elections. It’s one of the hierarchies of governance.”

Obviously, the hierarchy leads up to the central authority figure, whether at the federal or the regional level. And therefore, Pavlovsky explains, when people say a given region is part of the “red belt,” they don’t really mean that most voters in that regions are pro-Communist; this is only a reference to the political preferences of a given regional leader. These preferences will undoubtedly be taken into account by the region’s electoral commission.

Then there are the methods used in elections. Of course, outright fraud is possible in remote areas or the ethnic republics. Pavlovsky even mentioned “the Kalmykia model” – when “a certain result is specified in advance, before vote-counting begins.”

But such techniques are unlikely to be possible in most electoral commissions; what’s more, observers are present. Even so, there are various other possibilities: “For example, let’s say certain districts produce unwelcome vote-counting results; then those results can be declared invalid, citing some irregularities – and it’s entirely possible that the irregularities actually happened. But in districts which produce acceptable results, the very same kind of irregularities can be overlooked.”

Yet voters have their own counter-ruses to the ruses of the authorities. The Vedomosti newspaper says this fact needs to be taken into account to make a correct assessment of the results of the “primaries” test vote which the VTsIOM agency headed by Valery Fedorov carried out on November 22 in three cities.

The outcome of this special poll was widely publicized: it gave the United Russia party almost three times as many votes as the Communists. However, these figures raise many questions.

For example, the pollsters said they questioned 75% of voters: those whom they managed to catch at home (respondents were not required to go to polling stations; instead, the pollsters brought the ballot boxes to their homes). But what if the people they didn’t catch were the young and active citizens – Yabloko and Union of Right Forces voters – who don’t tend to stay home on Sundays? And what if the apartments that closed their doors to the pollsters mostly contained “distrustful old women, exactly the kind of people who vote for the CPRF?”

Another important aspect: voter turnout. As mentioned above, VTsIOM caught 75% of voters at home. Russian elections haven’t seen voter turnout go that high for a long time; it is predicted to be around 50% on December 7.

Thus, it is hard to say whether the results of these “primaries” are any reasonable indication of the mood of the electorate.

In looking at the impact of the YUKOS affair on the election campaign, the Vremya Novostei newspaper says that “fear always goes together with reliability.”

If they’ve started to send people to jail, that means it’s time to be afraid: “Questions from pollsters (what if the poll is only a cover for a test of my loyalty?!) should only be given the correct answer: for United Russia, of course. But only the ballot box will know for whom the respondents have really decided to vote.” The Vremya Novostei article is headlined “The Bear Has Jumped” (an obvious allusion to a once-famous article in Literaturnaya Gazeta, entitled “The Lion Has Jumped” – about the penetration of the omnipotent Russian mafia into government).

Kommersant-Vlast magazine published an interesting study of the biases of Russian voters and attempts by PR agencies to take account of those biases in their campaign activities.

Going by campaign ads on television, says Kommersant-Vlast, Russian citizens are once again being invited to identify themselves as “simple” and “poor” people. In campaign ads, the “simple person” asserts the priority of “common sense” and “lasting values”: “We” are simple (good, open, sincere, naive). “They” are complex (cunning, obscure, mercenary, hypocritical).

What’s more, the people are ususally workers; campaign ads include plenty of scenes of people working, with few politicians failing to get a shot against a backdrop of dairy workers or laborers. Kommersant-Vlast asks: why are the people depicted solely as workers, as a rule?

According to Kommersant-Vlast, this is due to a strictly stratified and rather archaic model of society: “the ‘people’ are working, each in their place, while politicians look after the people’s interests, passing the correct laws.”

Campaign ads also appeal to voters’ image of their own poverty. The slogan of the LDPR is: “We stand for the poor!” And most television ads assume that the person being addressed has a low income.

Hence the usual conclusion, for Russia: the people work hard, but their living standards are low, because they have “bad rulers.”

Of course, United Russia takes pains to point out that people’s lives are much better now, but this is not the limit: “Well, we’re paying off the washing mashine and a new lounge suite… No, we’re not trying to buy an apartment yet, that will happen later.” Just as in Soviet times, the limit of people’s fantasies is seen as a new lounge suite, while an apartment would be an almost unattainable luxury.

Many Soviet stereotypes are used by the PR agencies. For example, the image of an enemy – inextricably linked with another concept: fairness.

Kommersant-Vlast says that the images of the enemy are restricted to a fairly narrow range: the enemies are those from whom “everything should be taken away and shared out.”

For the Russian Pensioners’ Party, the enemy is personified as Voucher the ginger tom-cat (a reference to Anatoly Chubais), “who has grown fat at our expense.”

The Communists, resolving to keep up with the times, are using a “red rap” with the following lyrics: “I’m sick of those rich bastards, I want to get back what they’ve taken away from me.”

United Russia calls on people to join forces against “those who are richest, those who make a lot of money.” It appears that the people’s longing for fairness essentially comes down to envy.

What’s more, in keeping with Russian traditions, attempts are made to influence the individual voter by using the image of the collective: in other words, calling on individual voters to join the majority.

Kommersant-Vlast says: “This creates an impression of some kind of vast, united body (the people/the nation) which everyone ought to join.”

However, as Kommersant-Vlast emphasizes, this kind of advertising “challenges the very idea of voting as a conscious act requiring individual effort, a process of choosing between various parties.”

Differences between people are seen as secondary; all we need to do is unite everyone into a single entity, and all shall be well: “All of us have our own little Russia. Only if we put them all together will we get a united picture, and see how great and rich Russia is. It has everything we need to ensure a decent life for everyone. A United Russia is a strong Russia.” And another slogan used by the United Russia party: “United Russia – in unity is our strength!”

Of course, the most powerful move in United Russia’s campaign was the interview Vladimir Putin gave to three national television networks.

The president said all he could, and even more: “As for the United Russia party, I can say that I am not a member of that party. However, it is precisely the political force on which I have relied throughout the past four years, the one which has consistently supported me.” (Quoted in the Izvestia newspaper.)

The president’s next words were still more flattering: “You know, life and happiness – that means now, and everyone wants to make the kind of decisions that would have a favorable impact on our lives today. It’s very difficult to make responsible decisions about the development of our state, looking to the long term… Well, United Russia has managed to rise above a certain level of populism – not sliding into populism, but making responsible decisions.”

In other words, says Kommersant, all Russian citizens who trust the president are being invited to vote for “the party on which he has relied, is relying, and intends to rely in future.” According to Kommersant, voters are essentially being offered a choice: “Either to vote for United Russia, thus electing an effective Duma and enabling the president to work under normal conditions; or to elect populists incapable of making responsible decisions, thus paralyzing the work of parliament and tying the president’s hands as well – with all the consequences that entails.”

Moreover, says Kommersant, the president’s efforts might create the impression that the high pre-election ratings “of United Russia don’t accurately reflect the situation (in other words, that the real support figures for United Russia are much lower, and support for the Communists is higher).”

There is also another possibility: the Kremlin is not satisfied with its existing superiority, and it’s trying to help United Russia win a constitutional majority in the Duma (over 75%) rather than a simple majority.

That is almost the kind of result seen in Central Asia – but it might be achievable, given that the party is backed by the president’s authority – and the president, as Kommersant reports, has an approval rating of 78%.

In the meantime, Russian citizens are far less united in their political preferences than they are in their trust of the head of state.

According to Profil magazine, only one-third of voters have clearly worked out their political likes and dislikes, and decided on a particular party. “That’s our country for you!” says Profil – here, a reference to extremes.

The rest of the citizenry, says Profil, includes many “groups of people who are in reality united by common views, a common fate, common interests, and a common position in the social hierarchy.” However, they still aren’t represented by any influential political forces.

According to Profil, Russia doesn’t even have a real rural party; the Agrarian Party of Russia represents the interests of the bankrupt collective farm system, not those of Russian farmers or workers at the large agribusiness holding companies.

Neither is there a proper party for the clergy; very strange, in a country that’s supposed to be going through a religious revival, according to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Neither is there a normal social-democratic party, not counting the artificially-created “prosthetic parties” (the term used by Profil) meant to support “retired politicians who try to present themselves as social democrats.”

According to Profil, such “prosthetic parties” are inevitable, since there is still no sign of natural, grass-roots party-building. This is evidence “of the depth and weight of the depression experienced by the nation in the transition from one world to another” – in other words, during the change of forms of society.

Profil notes that people tend to grow accustomed to prosthetic limbs, sooner or later; they are convenient, and easily interchangeable.

And with their help, it is even easier to create a single prosthesis to fit everyone: civil society – or a phantom of it for the election campaign.