An interview with leading pollster Valery Fedorov

Valery Fedorov: “No pure ideology – whether liberal, socialist, or communist – is relevant to Russia’s present-day problems or ways of solving them. And all parties are basing their campaign policies on specific demands, objectives, and promises, rather than classical ideologies.”

Valery Valerievich Fedorov, general director of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), shares his impressions of the political situation in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections.

Question: How does the current Duma election campaign differ from previous campaigns?

Valery Fedorov: I’d single out three particular features. Firstly, very low interest in politics among voters. The main reason for this is stabilization in our society: a more tranquil era has arrived, and individuals are mostly taking advantage of it to improve their own material prosperity. Secondly, the president’s direct involvement in the election campaign is an important difference. In 1999, Putin said: “I don’t know about you, but I’ll be voting for Unity.” In 2003, he attended United Russia’s congress. Now he is personally heading the party’s candidate list, and this has radically altered the nature of the campaign. This is the heaviest weight on the election scales, and it’s on the side of United Russia. All other parties have simply found themselves in a different weight category. Thirdly, I’ll note the anti-ideological nature of this campaign. It’s become entirely clear that no pure ideology – whether liberal, socialist, or communist – is relevant to Russia’s present-day problems or ways of solving them. And all parties are basing their campaign policies on specific demands, objectives, and promises, rather than classical ideologies.

Question: But parties are still positioning themselves as right-wing or left-wing.

Valery Fedorov: This distinction, which arose at the time of the French Revolution, has long since become obsolete. What’s in demand now is not distilled ideology, but a kind of “ideological cocktail.” And parties are striving to meet that demand. Look at the Union of Right Forces (SPS), for example – it’s being criticized for including some socialist slogans in its campaign policies. Yes, that does seem absurd from the standpoint of 20th-century ideologies. But from the standpoint of political pragmatism, it’s absolutely correct. That’s how it should be.

Question: And the party with the best ideological cocktail is…

Valery Fedorov: …United Russia. It’s playing the game across the entire electoral field, striving to occupy all niches. For example, when we ask respondents if they intend to vote, some of them say yes. And when we ask which party they intend to vote for, two-thirds of respondents choose United Russia. That proportion is consistent for pro-democracy respondents and socialist respondents alike.

Question: But doesn’t it seem to you that this can’t go on for long? Sooner or later, won’t United Russia develop a left wing and a right wing, or some sort of factions?

Valery Fedorov: We’ll certainly never have another Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), in which platforms and factions were forbidden. There are always various streams of thought within large parties. Japan’s ruling party has six factions, if I’m not mistaken, and they take turns to nominate prime ministers. There are certain streams within United Russia as well. And if this party continues to exist in the long term, the group formation process is sure to develop within it.

Question: Is United Russia a real political force these days, or is it all a PR project created from the top down?

Valery Fedorov: It’s been created from the top down, like any other party. The people don’t just get together and generate a party – it never happens that way. All parties are created from the top down, as small groups. Then they either remain small groups or gather mass support. Taking the step of forming a party-based government is critically important. We have a chance to do that, and if it is done, United Russia could well establish itself as the dominant political force for several presidential terms to come.

Question: Let’s get back to the question of classical ideologies becoming obsolete. If real political competition is no longer happening in the field of ideology, where is it happening now?

Valery Fedorov: It’s all very simple: there are the authorities and there are those who oppose them. There you have it: the major political difference. Both camps contain people with a broad range of political views. The only difference is that some are backing Putin and others are in opposition to him. Obviously, the first camp still has a huge advantage – after all, Putin is and remains Russia’s most popular and authoritative politician. What’s more, Putin has a seven-year record of successful government – he has no trouble producing evidence to back up his words. But the opposition lacks a single leader – it only has various petty leaders. And they lack a coherent language for talking to the people. There are also hardly any methods available for them to communicate with the people. They have tried to find alternatives to the media by using direct action, demonstrations and pickets – but people don’t take this seriously.

Question: In light of all this, how do you see the outcome of the December 2 elections?

Valery Fedorov: The two-party Duma scenario is quite likely, with only one party besides United Russia in the Duma – the Communist Party. And that’s only because it can rely on support from categories of citizens who always vote: the elderly and older middle-aged groups.

Question: Which party has the greatest growth potential?

Valery Fedorov: United Russia. Before Putin became its leading candidate, it seemed like the party had peaked – reaching its ceiling, unable to win any more support. But October showed that a new ceiling has emerged – the support rating of President Putin himself. United Russia’s maximum is now about 65% of the vote. So far, we’re seeing some fluctuations: United Russia’s rating rose in the first few weeks after Putin’s announcement, then started falling. So people have heard Putin’s message, but the party now has to mobilize them and convince them to vote. After all, there’s the widespread opinion that since Putin is heading the list, his party is bound to win anyway – so why bother with an active election campaign? The question is whether United Russia can manage to get Putin’s electorate out to the polling stations.

Question: What do you think might be the fate of parties that don’t make it into parliament?

Valery Fedorov: Two conclusions may be drawn from recent political history. First: parties that don’t make it into the Duma have little chance of surviving, let alone rebuilding their strength to arise from the ashes four years later. The support ratings of Yabloko and the SPS these days are lower than their results in the Duma election of 2003 – in other words, they have lost some voters in the past four years. Second conclusion: the ideas upheld by the parties that aren’t represented in parliament are still in demand among part of the electorate. For example, why didn’t Yabloko disband itself the day after its defeat in 2003? It would have been a logical move. But they are convinced that they have some loyal voters who would never vote for the Communists, the SPS, or United Russia.

Question: Isn’t that true?

Valery Fedorov: Take the SPS, for example. There’s a category of youthful, modern, business-oriented voters – managers and white-collar workers – who have already adapted to the post-Soviet era. They mostly live in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or other large cities. Their numbers are growing, but none of the existing parties really meet their needs – not even the SPS, which these people see as a party of the past. They don’t vote at all. They strive to solve their problems on their own. If their incomes aren’t high enough, they’ll ask for a raise or find a new job. If their child can’t get a place at the local kindergarten, they’ll bribe the principal or hire a nanny. But voting for the SPS? The idea that any of their own problems could be solved by voting for the SPS seems completely absurd to them.

Question: Is there any possibility of a scenario in which the parties that don’t make it into parliament decide to take their battle into the streets?

Valery Fedorov: They could move into the streets, but look at the people in those parties – you’ll see that they could all be intercepted almost immediately. And the people wouldn’t support them – calls for revolution wouldn’t get a response. Yes, people are indeed dissatisfied with their living standards. But our society has lost the late-1980s illusions about improving the situation by means of a rapid revolution and changing the state order. Everyone understands that this would only make things worse, in practice. The opposition can call for violence all it likes, but the people of Russia won’t answer that call.

Question: One final question: let’s look at the presidential election. Despite all the talk of a third term, Vladimir Putin has stated repeatedly that Russia will have a new president in 2008. Yet no other politician can compare to Putin in terms of popularity. So where will a new person come from – someone the people will vote for?

Valery Fedorov: There are three politicians from President Putin’s team who have a chance of gaining enough voter support to win the presidential election in the first round of voting. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and his two senior deputy prime ministers – Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev.

Question: Which one would you bet on?

Valery Fedorov: We have asked respondents if they would be prepared to vote for whomever Putin names as his successor. We didn’t suggest any particular names. Around two-thirds of respondents said yes. So the incumbent president’s support will be the decisive factor here.