Experts surveyed by the Novye Izvestia newspaper warn that the approaching parliamentary and presidential elections might cause a rise in nervous disorders, affecting ordinary citizens as well as those who are mentally unstable already. Their emotional equilibrium could be disrupted by a natural human fear of uncertainty, or by campaigning politicians who call for sweeping changes and predict terrible disasters if voters fail to support the correct party.
Yana Dubeikovskaya, director of the Applied Psychoanalysis Center, explained to Novye Izvestia that the policy programs of all parties include calls for some form of urgent changes. Moreover, the efforts of political strategists and consultants come down to inciting pre-election hysteria.
Even a simple call such as “our country’s fate depends on how you vote” – repeated many times, with variations – can cause psychological disturbances. Many people can’t even cope with their own lives, let alone take responsibility for the fate of Russia. There is a widespread subconscious fear of “failing to keep up with the latest round of changes, as in the 1990s, when many people ended up personally broken.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that the mental health of most Russian citizens is by no means flawless as things stand. According to official figures, mental illness affects around 6 million people, and many more people have reversible neuroses as a result of traumatic factors. Researcher and psychotherapist Mikhail Litvak (Russian Academy of Natural Sciences) told Novye Izvestia that around 85% of Russian citizens suffer from some form of neurosis.
Psychiatrists know that psychologically unstable people experience seasonal deteriorations in their condition – usually in autumn and spring. Since the Duma campaign will happen this autumn and the presidential election is coming up next spring, “this could coincide with an overall upswing in psychological problems,” according to Liubov Vinogradova, executive director of the Independent Psychiatric Association.
Calls for completing the task of building capitalism and increasing professional skills in the party are unlikely to have a negative impact on the general public’s mental health. But neither do voters seem all that responsive to the rational approach adopted by the Union of Right Forces (SPS) for its campaign.
The Gazeta newspaper reports that the SPS has averaged just over the coveted 7% mark in recent regional elections. Thus, the party risks another failure to make it into the Duma in December. Nevertheless, SPS leader Nikita Belykh has decided that his party will distance itself from Yabloko and go into the election on its own. Belykh maintains that this decision will be approved by the SPS congress in September, which will re-elect federal political council members and the party chairman himself.
The SPS federal leadership has been engaged in a very public conflict with the SPS city of Moscow branch. Apparently in order to prevent this conflict from dragging on until the party congress, Belykh announced on June 23 that he has disbanded the political council of the Moscow branch, explaining that the Moscow branch leaders refused to comply with the “wishes” of the federal political council (yes, “wishes” – because the SPS charter gives party members the right to disobey orders from the party leadership). Belykh didn’t mention the nature of those wishes.
The Kommersant newspaper explains that this conflict flared up in late March, when the SPS federal leadership instructed Moscow branch members to re-register, in order to rule out the presence of any “dead souls” in the party. Re-registration process results showed that only 950 out of the branch’s 2,400 members had confirmed their SPS membership. But the “uncounted” SPS members challenged their new status, accusing the party’s federal leadership of intending to “drive out” current Moscow members and replace the branch leader, Ivan Novitsky. According to Novitsky, the SPS federal leadership is displeased with the political independence of the Muscovites: they have contravened party policy by participating in protests organized by “the opposition outside the system, the Other Russia” and have spoken out against the idea of supporting President Vladimir Putin’s designated successor in the election of 2008.
When the Vremya Novostei newspaper asked what caused the conflict, Novitsky complained about the vindictive nature of SPS federal leaders: “Some members of the federal political council can’t forgive us for sharing a candidate list with Yabloko in the Moscow city legislature election. The conflict has arisen due to the ambitions of certain members of the federal political council, who think they can control everything on the basis of Kremlin-linked resources and money – but not everyone agrees with that.”
Novitsky also maintains that the Moscow branch hasn’t done anything to damage the party: “What’s damaging the party is the current atmosphere of secrecy. Certain activists are not admitted to party council meetings – there are closed lists, and this is unacceptable in a democratic party.”
As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, the SPS Moscow branch even organized a protest rally (“You can’t drive us out!”) before the federal political council meeting on June 23. At the rally, Novitsky directly accused SPS federal leaders of conspiring with the Kremlin. “A hierarchy of authority is being established in the party. The political council is rubber-stamping decisions!” said the outraged Novitsky. Other picketers went as far as accusing the federal leadership of staging “a raider-style takeover of the Moscow branch, backed by RAO Unified Energy Systems.”
Belykh responded: “We don’t have any political differences. There is no split. No repressive measures will be taken.” This seemed to work; after protesting for a while in front of the cameras, Moscow branch members collectively set out for the political council meeting.
As Gazeta reports, Belykh invited Valeria Novodvorskaya to the meeting – and she declared that the Moscow branch “splitters” are conspiring with the special services. “Here’s a tip from the Soviet-era dissidents: whenever you see a split or hear destructive recommendations, look for signs of KGB involvement,” said Novodvorskaya, with her trademark emotional style, in an open letter to the Moscow branch. She also noted that Belykh has “great potential as a leader and president.”
Leonid Gozman, SPS deputy chairman for ideology, told Kommersant that the conflict has been caused by “the poor performance of the Moscow branch” and its insubordination to the party leadership’s decisions. Then again, according to Kommersant, Gozman is hardly an unbiased observer; he’s aiming to become the Moscow branch leader himself and claim the top slot on the SPS candidate list in Moscow.
The previous leaders of the Moscow branch, headed by Novitsky, have not been expelled from the party – but the federal political council has taken direct control of the Moscow branch. Novitsky confirmed this in a conversation with Vremya Novostei.
At the June 23 meeting, Belykh sounded rather like Yabloko leader Grigori Yavlinsky: as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, he declared that the SPS is “Russia’s one and only democratic opposition party.” The difference is that the SPS, in contrast to Yabloko, actually has a chance of making it into the Duma. “We’ll go into the election on our own, beneath our own banners,” said Belykh emphatically.
The next speaker after Belykh was Anton Bakov, Duma member and SPS campaign manager. Kommersant notes that he said less and less about the party shifting to the left (since Bakov took over as campaign manager, the SPS has started using traditionally leftist methods of working with voters and talking of social policy), but placed more and more emphasis on the need to “professionalize the party.”
Bakov called on his colleagues to learn from the experience of United Russia and Just Russia, which are capable of arranging maximal media exposure for little-known candidates within a very short time. Bakov said: “We need to find some strong candidates in every single region within six months, and ensure that voters can recognize those candidates.” Bakov called on the SPS “to take the question of professionalizing the party seriously.”
The idea of “strong regional candidates” was supported by Gozman – and by Novodvorskaya, who described Bakov, the fighter for capitalism, as “an honorary Joan of Arc.”
Kommersant reports that at the post-meeting press conference, Boris Nemtsov admitted that the SPS has not yet finalized the choice of top three candidates for its federal list; he said that his own presence in the top three “would certainly make the SPS position stronger,” and “the SPS is thinking of including a woman in the top three.”
Actually, the SPS candidate list might not have a top three at all; it could be headed by two candidates, or even one. Gozman told Kommersant that the party is not in the business of finding Duma jobs for anyone: “If a specific individual will bring in more votes for the SPS, that person will be in the top three.” After noting that the law forbids having more than three candidates at the top of a list, Gozman mentioned that there are no rules against having fewer than three. In Gozman’s view, the only candidate who’s certain to be in the top three is Nikita Belykh.
The SPS will hold its pre-election congress in September. According to the party charter, this congress should include re-electing the federal political council. Party members say that no surprises are anticipated: the current political council secretaries will retain their posts. At the same congress, the SPS will release its Duma candidate lists and identify the top three candidates on its federal list.
Vremya Novostei observes that the other opposition party, Yabloko, is also experiencing a shortage of unity in its ranks. Its party congress should nominate Grigori Yavlinsky as Yabloko’s presidential candidate. So far, the party has only held its federal council meeting, which adopted a resolution recommending Yavlinsky for the presidential election of 2008.
But Yavlinsky might not be the only Yabloko candidate after all. Sergei Gulyaev, former member of the Yabloko faction in the St. Petersburg municipal legislature, has started a movement of his own: Narod (The People). At its inaugural conference on June 25, Narod endorsed Gulyaev as a presidential candidate.
Gulyaev didn’t rule out the possibility of becoming the common candidate representing the Other Russia opposition coalition. “But I won’t be dependent on the Other Russia’s decision – I’ll be running for president anyway,” said Gulyaev.
Alexei Navalnyi, one of Narod’s leaders and also a deputy leader of Yabloko’s Moscow branch, told Vremya Novostei: “Gulyaev is the kind of person who could become a consolidation figure. True, he doesn’t have a high approval rating or high recognition. But a candidate with zero approval and disapproval ratings is better than someone with an approval rating of 1% and a disapproval rating of 31%. Besides, Gulyaev has been a candidate on Yabloko’s lists and a member of the Yabloko faction, and the Other Russia is likely to support him.”
In the meantime, despite the relaxing effect of warm weather and recent or forthcoming vacations, polls indicate that 60% of citizens are prepared to vote in the Duma election. According to a poll done in May by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 32% of respondents regard voting as their civic duty. Another 18% will vote out of habit, while only 7% will vote because of some particular candidate. And 7% of respondents say they intend to boycott the election, on principle, because the Duma doesn’t have any real power. Most of the respondents who don’t intend to vote put it down to indifference: 32% believe that their votes wouldn’t make any difference, and 26% say they’re not interested in politics.