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Russia: Voters Speak About Impact Of Elections On Their Lives

September 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It's been a busy month for Russian politics. Little-known Viktor Zubkov was confirmed as the country's new prime minister by the State Duma on September 14, while President Vladimir Putin named a new government on September 24. Now, Russians are looking ahead to parliamentary elections in December and an expected presidential succession in March 2008. With the government reshuffles now in the past, and significant elections yet to come, RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke with a cross section of civic-minded voters around the country, to ask if it matters to them who's sitting in the Kremlin and whether they expect the upcoming polls to make any difference.

Andrei Dmitriyev

St. Petersburg, 28 years old, history teacher, opposition youth activist

"It's of tremendous significance to me who's in the Kremlin, because I'm involved in politics, in the opposition, which is quite dangerous and risky in Russia today. President Putin has created a climate that is stifling political freedom in the country, and we can't carry out normal political activities.

"Putin has been lucky to be president at a time when oil prices are very high and the war in Iraq has influenced prices a lot. Russia has a lot of money now; an enormous amount of money. But the people who are ruling us now, including Putin, have failed to develop a long-term strategy for the growth of the country. They have failed to invest the money in priority areas, because clearly they see governing the country as a business; they see Russia as a business project to extract money and resources from, and this is solely what they need power for. They don't love their country and they don't think about what will happen to the country when they're gone.

"I don't expect substantial changes from the elections. We've just seen the president appoint his old friend and colleague Viktor Zubkov as the new prime minister. I remember the same man, Zubkov, running for governor of Leningrad Oblast in 1999. He had a phenomenally talentless campaign, managed by the current Russian president, under the slogan 'For Zubkov, for Zenit!' meaning a St. Petersburg soccer team. Despite the enormous financial investment, thanks mainly to administrative resources, he finished fourth in the election. He is an absolutely uninteresting, inexpressive executor. Unfortunately, to say that elections in Russia have been turned into a farce now is to say nothing new."

Archpriest Aleksandr Borisov

Moscow, 68 years old, senior priest of the Church of Kosmas and Damian

"It is, in fact, a matter of great significance who's in the Kremlin. It determines the direction of the country's life, its foreign policy, care for the poor, social programs, and so on. The president has enormous power in Russia and, of course, the president is the key figure of our whole life. And perhaps one of the most important things is that people in power should be replaceable. As for my everyday life, you know, you always hear news about certain events, about decisions made by the president and his actions. It is important, too, and it can make you happy or sad.

"It's hard to say whether the elections will bring changes, but I think there will be some, hopefully for the better. Hopefully, people will feel more protected and equal before the law. And equality before the law is something we should all strive for. I think changes are, of course, always possible, especially in our country which has so many needs. It seems to me that many administrative processes are too complicated now, that there are too many prisoners whose cases are not reviewed, and perhaps there should be a breakthrough in this area. There are always many problems in life, so I hope the next president will deal with these urgent issues, particularly because the current president has laid down the economic foundation and the country has grown strong, financially, which is good, and now it is important to use it for the good of the people.

"As far as parliament is concerned, it's hard to say. I think the outcome of the election is preprogrammed, so to speak, unfortunately, and, to be honest, I don't trust the results of the previous election either. I don't expect any changes from the parliamentary elections because I doubt that the parties that win the sympathy of the intelligentsia -- such as Yabloko and the Union of the Rightist Forces -- will overcome the 7 percent barrier. I think this barrier has been set too high. Perhaps there should be a 3 percent barrier so there is more diversity in our parliament."

Aleksandr Ignatiyev

Yekaterinburg, 39 years old, runs construction-materials firm

"I don't think there will any significant changes after either the parliamentary or presidential elections. Maybe members of parliament will begin dealing with issues that are more important than the ones they dealt with in the previous Duma. And for my personal, everyday life, it makes absolutely no difference who sits in the Kremlin. The situation in Russia in the past eight years has [stabilized] to the degree that it doesn't really mater whether it is Putin or someone else. In fact, I think that Russia's political and economic situation would already be difficult to reverse, so for me personally it makes absolutely no difference who it is. Actually, if I can speak jokingly, it would simply be nice to see a more or less likable face on the TV as our country's main figure."

Nadezhda Dreval

Tomsk, 22 years old, civil lawyer, former member of Union of Rightist Forces youth branch

"Russia is a peculiar country and our constitution was adopted to suit the president. Whoever becomes president sets the pace and character of the game. He dictates the rules and everything depends on him. My life, therefore, depends on the person in power.

I'm a lawyer. In order to avoid problems on the road, I made a point of learning all the laws, acts, and internal traffic police instruction. I did that in order to know my rights and their duties because I don't bribe, out of principle, and I don't want to pay unnecessary fines. So, I'm pulled over by a police officer once. He asks for my papers. I didn't break any rules, but he did. I quote from a specific act, saying, 'You're violating my rights. Do you understand? I will complain.' He says, 'Feel free to complain. Nothing is going to happen to me.' This seems like a small thing but, generally, it characterizes today's situation well. Law-enforcement officers are certain of their impunity. They made us wait for three hours without any grounds. I had a friend of mine sitting in the car with me and, to my shame, she said, 'Sorry, I don't want to be stuck here on the road in the middle of the night.' She called her friends, they called their friends, those friends called the traffic cop, then he said, 'Oh, you guys are our people. You can go.' This is how problems are solved.

"I don't want to live in such a society. I want to live under law. It's a very simple thing -- to live under law. If I break the rules, I pay a fine. If I'm wrong, I'm ready to bear punishment because I know that if someone is wrong with respect to me, that person will be punished too. I agree to live in such conditions, but unfortunately the situation is such that my life depends very much on the person in power, the state's attitude to me, the attitude of public servants. The lowest stratum [of society] depends fully on what is decided at the top.

"To be honest, I have doubts even whether I should vote at all. Well, of course I'll vote because an election is a sacrosanct obligation. People should vote. But I realize that it will be 'the right people' who will win the election. I realize that whoever replaces Putin, Putin will most likely come back in four years, and he will rule, but he will pursue the same course from behind the curtains [in the meantime]. Nothing will change. I'm afraid I don't expect any positive changes in the next 12 or 15 years at all. If there are changes, they will be only for the worse. This is my opinion. I think substantial change is possible not earlier than in 20 or 25 years."

Yury Lirmak

Tomsk, 48 years old, travel company director

"Putin is the chief figure in the Kremlin. This entire era is the era of Putin. And it is my impression that the rules of the games set by the person at the top will remain the same no matter who comes next. At this point, I don't see any prospects for change under the next president. In other words, we will have this stability which benefits the businessman but does not benefit the citizen. Under communism, I equated the abundance of the market economy with freedom, so when there was no freedom, there were no goods on the market. Now, we have consumer goods but no freedom, and people don't care.

"I actually believe that the Unified Russia party is absolutely legitimate because it reflects the choice of the people. This is life. I'm not saying it's good, but I've stopped worrying about it. I can say precisely what I don't like about the current rules of the game, which means the president too: it's that when Radio Liberty comes to interview me, I pause to think for a second if I should talk to them at all. The fact that I think twice about it can be blamed on [Putin]. This shouldn't be happening in the 21st century. We are not Zimbabwe or Iran, and I hope Russia will never join this list.

"I see people who are absolutely indifferent to politics in their country. People will not change as a result of elections. But maybe, because miracles are possible in our country, the person who comes to power -- despite being a chosen successor -- will have ideas of his own, and he may call the previous era disgraceful and slavish and say everything will be different from now on. And everyone will applaud, myself included. I'll like that situation, even though it's not natural. Democracy begins from the people and not from the top."

Ilya Yashin

Moscow, 24 years old, co-representative of the Yabloko youth branch

"In a normal democratic country, it wouldn't be of crucial importance who's in the Kremlin, because [the president] would be someone who is trusted by an absolute majority of the people, and there would be a clear mechanism of change of power, which is very important so that the people in power don't stay in the Kremlin forever. Today we have a big problem, because since there is no such mechanism of change of power, there is a period of stagnation beginning and the political life in the country is turning into a swamp.

"The first signs of this process have already become evident and this has a negative effect on everyday life because it leads to an erosion of civil liberties -- the liberties that in fact have a direct impact on the everyday lives of common people. As strange as it may sound to an average person, civil liberties determine whether there is sausage in stores and how much it costs, how much people pay for gasoline. People's security, for instance, depends on freedom of speech. Civil rights and freedoms, guaranteed by the president, have a direct impact on people's everyday lives.

"I hope the system of relations between power and society will change in 2008. I hope a fundamentally new system will emerge in 2008 and society will not be ruled by security services and government officials, but on the contrary, society will influence power. For that to be achieved, those people who are in the Kremlin now should be removed from power. This is my hope. However, the opposite may occur. It is quite possible that in order to legalize Vladimir Putin's third term, for example, the authorities will turn the screws on civil liberties even tighter. It is quite possible that in order to implement the 'successor project,' if it is to be launched, some bloody events will be unleashed in our country, as it happened in 1999 with the war in Chechnya. I hope very much that no matter how things develop in our country, we will be able to avoid a bloody tragedy."

Aleksei Yuzhakov

Moscow, 43 years old, representative for the Russian Trade Union for Aeronautical Radiolocation, Radionavigation, and Communications

"It's of great significance for every citizen who's in the Kremlin, because this is what determines policy. The lives of public organizations are influenced largely by the way they are treated by the government. I think it's very significant for our trade union because it unites aviation workers. This has always been a leading field of scientific and intellectual thought, and the well-being of our workers and the moral and psychological climate depend on the state's attitude to this field. Our workers work at a federal, unitary plant that is directly accountable to the federal air navigation service. And the entire income of our system depends on the way the state uses the regulatory functions that are vested in it. If the state pays attention [to the industry], our incomes grow, therefore the well-being of the workers improves.

"We are optimists and, of course, we do expect changes following the presidential and parliamentary elections. We expect the authorities to treat their citizens more responsibly because the citizens are the national patrimony of any country. [We hope] the social direction of the state will change. The state is already making some efforts in terms of the demographic situation, but we would like there to be more attention to the working man. We'd like to see an increase of wages and pensions, and we'd like for the people not to die at their working places but to work as long as they should, then retire and use their pension money to enjoy life, as they do in Europe."

(Reported by Yevgenia Nazarets from Yekaterinburg; Melanie Bachina from Tomsk; Veronika Bode from Moscow; and Viktor Rezunkov from St. Petersburg)


Andrei Ryabov

CONNECTING THE DOTS. RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, about the significance of Viktor Zubkov's nomination as prime minister.

RFE/RL: What does this unexpected decision mean? Why Zubkov, who was never mentioned before are a possible prime minister, to say nothing of a potential presidential successor?

Andrei Ryabov: First, concerning Viktor Zubkov's nomination as prime minister. There were conversations about this, although these rumors always had a peripheral character. Compared to the political heavyweights -- people in the top-10 list like [Russian Railways head] Vladimir Yakunin, [First Deputy Prime Minister] Dmitry Medvedev, and others -- this candidacy was, of course, not considered very realistic. I wouldn't want to start guessing, since there are a lot of possible variations. However, I am not inclined to think that this [Zubkov's appointment] suggests a successor strategy. There is, after all, too little time; this figure is practically unknown. Despite all the possibilities of the contemporary Russian propaganda machine making an unknown figure a public one... in my opinion, we aren't talking about this variant. Most likely, we are talking about a government that will, first of all, have a transitional character and which, possibly, in some key blocs or parts will be passed on to the future successor. And the future successor, most likely, will be presented a little later.

I'd return to the well-known press conference in February when Vladimir Putin said there won't be any successors; there will be candidates for the post of president of the Russian Federation. Therefore, I wouldn't rule out that at the [October 1-2] Unified Russia congress in some form or another, the candidacy of [First Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Ivanov or, perhaps, of Dmitry Medvedev will be put forward, and the current government will remain as a sort of guarantee of the position of the exiting president during the term of the new head of state. Such a scheme at present seems most likely to me, although, of course, it is nothing more than intellectual speculation.

RFE/RL: Is it possible that Zubkov's candidacy is a stopgap measure, and his nomination indicates that the Kremlin has not decided on a successor?

Ryabov: I don't think that the Kremlin has not decided on a successor. In general it seems to me that the significance of this question has become somewhat inflated. I think that much more serious is the question of the balance of interests, of the new configuration of power after 2008. Here, it would seem, agreement is far off. There are many conflicts, and it is not clear yet that these conflicts are being resolved. I don't think the candidacy of Viktor Zubkov is the candidacy that would facilitate the resolution of these problems in record time.

RFE/RL: Unlike Fradkov, Zukbov doesn't belong to the Chekist group. Does this mean that another staffing resources is being used?

Ryabov: I don't agree -- not in regard to the chekists, but in regard to, say, the equal distance of this figure from all the key political groups. There is a widespread view that the new candidate for premier is also in the sphere of contacts or, shall we say, close to some particular direction. It isn't by chance that I am making so many qualified statements because all this is, naturally, on the level of speculation. Regarding the group of the influential deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin, at least, he maintains pretty good contacts with that group.