Putin’s new majority: "selfish in the good sense of the term"


Putin’s voters are getting younger: this sensational news was recently revealed by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM).

As FOM analysts explained to the Izvestia newspaper, the total number of Putin supporters has remained the same: 11% of his former supporters have changed their preferences, but at the same time he has gained 12% of new voters. Only 2% of these have switched to Putin after supporting other politicians in the past; the rest are young people aged 18-25. Overall, as Izvestia has calculated, 25% of Putin’s electorate is new.

FOM analysts have some convincing explanations for this: “People who are currently starting their adult lives are much more satisfied with life than members of older age groups.” What’s more, they don’t have the “1990s stereotype” mindset of “everything is terrible,” when it wasn’t the done thing to notice anything positive about life in Russia.

Figures from the All-Russian Public Opinion Reseach Center (VTsIOM) look equally impressive: while Putin’s overall support rating is 55%, it’s 60% among young respondents.

“Young people are fairly pragmatic, rational, and selfish in the good sense of the term – so they prefer simple political concepts,” VTsIOM director Vladimir Petukhov told Izvestia. “That’s why they are so attracted by the idea that Putin constantly proposes: building a Russia where people aren’t ashamed to live and where it’s possible to have a successful career.”

Research done by the Social Planning Institute in cooperation with ROMIR Monitoring confirms that young people, regardless of their income levels, accept the values of democracy and a market economy to a much greater extent than the rest of society. As Izvestia reports, these young respondents generally describe their own income level as average (58%), but most of them (72%) say they respect people who strive to make as much money as possible. Eighty percent of young respondents say they use mobile phones, and 48% use computers. Most say they are in good health (84%). Izvestia states: “Being young, healthy, intelligent, and successful is important not only for their own careers, but for Russia’s political future.”

Then again, these values may be considered universal for young people across various historical eras.

Ivan Demidov, leader of the Young Guard (Molodaya Gvardiya) youth movement being re-established by the United Russia party, admitted in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that while his movement’s main objective is “to act as a kind of chief political pro-state youth force,” it does make sense to utilize the wealth of experience accumulated by predecessors. “We can borrow a great deal from the Komsomol (Communist Youth League),” said Demidov.

More specifically, Demidov considers it possible to borrow this aspect of the Komsomol: “its scale and its outlook, which aimed to prepare new personnel for various roles, including the ruling elite.”

Something similar has been mentioned by Vasili Yakemenko, leader of the Our Own (Nashi) youth movement; his people also set themselves the goal of gradually displacing the present elite (“the defeatists,” as Our Own calls them) from leadership posts.

However, despite Demidov’s assurances that everyone who “is in some sort of agreement with the direction of Russia’s development can be our allies,” he firmly denies cooperating with Our Own. “Not all movements are the same,” Demidov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “When a movement has young people being directed by political players and treated like cannon fodder, of course there can be no question of cooperating with that movement. We don’t divide young people into ‘our own’ and ‘not our own.'”

What’s more, the Young Guard leader told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he finds it “difficult to speak of United Russia’s stance regarding Our Own,” since that movement, “no matter what people say, is not tied to any political force at present.”

Then again, Demidov made a rather inconsistent additional remark: “United Russia has long since become a fairly large organization, in which all kinds of viewpoints are represented. As Mao Zedong said, let a thousand flowers bloom.”

The Kommersant newspaper reports that when setting the inaugural congress of Young Guard for mid-November, United Russia general council presidium secretary Vyacheslav Volodin expressed confidence that the new organiation will be “fighting fit and effective, becoming a personnel reserve for the party.”

Konstantin Kostin, deputy head of United Russia’s executive committee and an advisor to Vyacheslav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, told Kommersant that the need to establish a new organization has arisen “due to changing political circumstances and the fact that young people are taking an increased interest in politics.”

The above-mentioned FOM survey also notes that young people are becoming increasingly (if one-sidedly) politicized.

In explaining the “geographic nuances” of support for Putin in various regions (the center of this support has shifted from the North-Western federal district to the ethnic republics of the Trans-Volga federal district, Altai, Novosibirsk, and Omsk), FOM analysts say: “If political activity in a region is busy, support for Putin tends to be higher.” For example, the proportion of Putin supporters tends to rise in every region after regional elections.

Leading pollster Yuri Levada told Izvestia: “Young people do indeed support Putin to a greater extent than other groups. They perceive him as energetic and progressive, and don’t see any alternatives to him.”

In this contest, it’s interesting to note the thoughts of Helene Carrere d’Encausse, a prominent specialist in Russian political history and the permanent secretary of the Academie Francaise; she has been interviewed by the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper.

Madame Carrere d’Encausse says: “Many people in the West are saying that Putin will remain in power for 20 years by performing some sort of tricks with the Constitution; but Putin himself is stating more and more clearly that he will not stay on – thus cutting off any paths of retreat for himself.” The French political scientist finds these statements interesting, “since being in power is very comfortable, after all.” Especially with Putin’s level of support. However, Madame Carrere d’Encausse says she has a “slight suspicion” that Putin has “tired” of his job: “He’s traveling abroad too often, he’s exercising too much… His energy levels have declined, though I don’t understand why.”

In general, Madame Carrere d’Encausse admits that she doesn’t really understand what’s happening to Putin: “When he first took office, he made a very good analysis of Russia’s problems and clearly attempted to go further. These days, it’s hard to work out how his social and political program will be implemented.”

Madame Carrere d’Encausse only expresses the hope that this policy program “does not mean that the state will reclaim control of everything. Isn’t it enough to have Khodorkovsky in prison?”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) can’t figure out what’s happening in Russia either.

The IMF’s annual report on the Russian economy is fairly harsh this year, says the Vedomosti newspaper. It states that Russia’s structural reforms have “essentially stopped.” Health-care and education reforms have been postponed due to protests against the monetization of social benefits, while housing and utilities reforms are yet to begin.

What’s more, as an IMF official told Vedomosti, the state administration reforms and pension reforms have been “stillborn”; the question of restructuring the natural gas and rail transport monopolies “isn’t even being discussed”; and electrical energy reforms “are moving in an uncertain direction.”

But the Russian analysts approached by Vedomosti say that the IMF seems to have “misunderstood the situation.”

“The structural reforms acquired concrete objective and realization mechanisms, they are being performed as national projects,” Andrei Belousov, Director General of the Center of Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-term Forecasting, explained to Vedomosti. Economic Development Ministry officials add that it’s impossible to reform health-care, for example, without raising the salaries of state-sector health workers and supplying them with modern equipment.

However, President of Antanta Kapital Sergei Aleksashenko noted in this respect that “promising doesn’t mean marrying”: in his opinion, state budget employees are paid irrespectively of continuation of reforms.

Moreover, the IMF’s opinion that excessive spending of petrodollars jeopardizes budget stability – and consequently, political stability – is shared not only by Russia’s Finance Ministry. Valery Mironov from the Development Center declared to Vedomosti that in the pre-election 2007 year, social expenses are likely to grow even more, but their inflationary depreciation tempo will go up as well.

As Vedomosti was told by HSBC Bank’s Chief Economist Alexander Morozov, “the further oil mounts up in price, the more there are analysts assured it will last long, but then they are deeply disappointed.” However, for the time being there’s no oil prices decline viewed, which allows financing not only “the priority national projects,” but even spending a part of the Stabilization Fund on covering shortfalls in the Pension Fund.

“It’s no accident that the present elites appeal to our Soviet past,” writes Novoye Vremya magazine. “It isn’t only trying to create a copy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under the name “United Russia,” but reproduces the economic dependency on developed countries.”

Needless to say, it’s much easier to become a raw material appendage of all those countries that want Russian hydrocarbons, than it is to “work long and hard” to develop the economy, notes Novoye Vremya. It’s a long and difficult path which “can be managed only by an elite that doesn’t regard citizens as a mere ‘electorate’ – an elite that intends to live and die in its own country.”

If Russia lacks such an elite, it’s no wonder that capital is leaving Russia – “where else is it supposed to go?” Or that even in the situation of an economical upturn the growth is observed only in trade and building and doesn’t touch the rest spheres. In general, the magazine warns, “if our economy gets gradually reduced to a system of export pipe lines, only those who maintain and guard them will be able to live decently in the country.”

In general, as Helene Carrere d’Encausse told Moskovskie Novosti, in the Putin era “the relationship between the authorities and the people has not improved.” The French political scientist says: “Russia has elites, it has well-educated people, but they can’t see any place for themselves in politics.” That’s where the uncertainty about “what happens after Putin and who is the successor” comes from. As Madame Carrere d’Encausse says, “I see the same nice fellows, charming liberals, but how many of them are there? Twenty-five!”

Argumenty i Fakty observer Vyachaslav Kostikov takes a more prosaic view of the Russian elite: “Most of the present holders of high office were brought into power by the random winds of the 1990s. Russia (with some minor St. Petersburg exceptions) is still ruled by offspring of Yeltsin’s nest.” What’s more, “self-denying romantics” (like Alexander Yakovlev, Sergei Filatov, or Nikolai Travkin) have already left the scene, and for the new elite, “the riffle of dollars is the most patriotic song.”

At that, Kostikov notes, for the “building capitalism” years, the number of bureaucrats has two times increased and reached 1.5 million people. Nevertheless, the system has got no less effective: even in the presidential administration they admit that 20-30% of Putin’s orders are not being carried out. The situation is even worse in the government: “decisions get stuck in the bureaucratic swamps.” Only the projects backing by powerful lobbies of an official’s interest have a chance to be realized. For instance, writes Kostikov, people interested in the benefits monetization, “forced it easily through all the structures in no time.” And there was quite a lot of these structures: the government – the Duma – the Federation Council – the presidential administration. It’s pointless to ask “who is making money from the medicines flows having changed their channels? Through whose pockets are unlimited money flows passing now, thrown by the frightened government in order to silence the people’s discontent?”

In general, the level of government corruption is growing, while public confidence in the authorities is declining disastrously. These circumstances, as Kostikov puts it, comprise a “true ‘nuclear briefcase,’ capable of blowing up economic and social stability.”

It should be noted, that this opinion is shared by most observers and politicians.

Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy leader of the Yabloko party, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that in his view, “the real danger of a social explosion comes from the government resolution that will require all regions without exception to make the transition to 100% user-pays housing and utilities charges from January 1 next year.”

Mitrokhin maintains that for most regions, especially in Russia’s North, “this will be a true catastrophe, leading to widespread heating shortages, a collapse in payments, and heating system breakdowns in winter.” After that, “there are sure to be protest rallies, drawing large crowds. And it really will be an explosion.”

Mitrokhin’s views are supported by Sergei Glaziev in the same issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Housing and utility charges exceed reasonable levels, being higher than most Russian families can afford.” Glaziev predicts that as soon as people start being evicted for failing to pay their housing and utilities bills, “the people will go out into the streets to defend themselves.”

Oddly enough, the Communists take a calmer view of the consequences of housing and utilities reforms. Communist Party deputy chairman Ivan Melnikov notes philosophically that the reforms won’t lead to widespread unrest: “Unfortunately, people have already grown used to this, to some extent.” On the other hand, as Melnikov says, the people understand that “the real problem isn’t this particular issue, but the entire socio-economic policy agenda of the authorities.”

But that is also a big question: how critical are voters of the authorities’ performance? As the Gazeta newspaper reports, the Levada Center’s latest poll shows almost half (47%) of respondents saying that Russia has no real opposition these days; in other words, it lacks any “public movements or parties in opposition to the authorities and capable of significantly influencing the situation in Russia.”