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RFE/RL Poll: Russians Skeptical About Elections, Hopeful For Future

(file photo) (ITAR-TASS) November 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian voters are approaching upcoming parliamentary elections with a mixture of cynicism and hope.

According to an RFE/RL poll, nearly two-thirds of voting-age Russians do not believe that December's elections to the State Duma will be conducted honestly. Even more striking is the fact that fewer than one in five believe that the results of the vote will reflect the true will of the electorate.

So what will determine the results of an election that such an overwhelming majority believes will be fixed? Nearly half of the respondents said either President Vladimir Putin or his Kremlin administration will be the main factor in determining which parties win Duma seats on December 2.

'Preordained Victor'

Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist at the European University of St. Petersburg, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that with neither the elites nor the public expecting a fair election, the process is beginning to resemble a rigged sporting event.

(For the full results, click here.)

"You can compare the situation to a football match in which the result is known in advance, the referee completely favors one team that is the preordained victor, and the spectators are not even interested in watching or in supporting one team or another," says Gelman.

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party holds an overwhelming lead in all public opinion polls.

Past elections have been marred by widespread accusations of various forms of intimidation and falsification to achieve scripted results. Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Analytical Center, which conducted the poll, says voters expect massive falsification will be used to ensure a big Unified Russia win.

"People are suggesting, based on their experience, that violations, falsifications, and pressure on voters are possible," says Gudkov. "All the research shows a contrast between what people think should happen and what they see in reality."

Private Optimism

But despite such palpable pessimism about the process, a majority of likely voters nevertheless say they expect their lives will improve as a result of the elections.

The apparent contradiction -- skepticism about the elections on the one hand, hope for the future on the other -- actually makes sense in Russia's current political climate, according to some observers.

"Over the past seven years, the belief that tomorrow will be better than today has increased," says Maria Marskevich of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. "Approximately half the population, with some variations, believe that tomorrow will be better than today. And after the elections, that is the future."

Marskevich says that much of that optimism is tied in voters' minds to Putin’s rule, which the majority of Russians believe brought stability to the country. Putin, whose second presidential term expires next year, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third, but is widely expected to hold onto power in some form.

The president is heading the candidate list for Unified Russia, and the Kremlin is clearly trying to turn the election into a referendum on whether Putin should remain in power. Marskevich says the majority of the public is prepared to give it to him, regardless of democratic niceties.

"The society is legitimately prepared to give him not only a third term, but also an unlimited number of terms," she says. "And in this sense, whether the process is democratic does not concern [most of] the population. Whether this is done constitutionally is not on the minds of [most of] the population."

One Party, One Leader

Marskevich adds, however, that while Putin's popularity has soared during his time in office, public trust in other institutions -- including elections -- has plummeted.

Levada director Gudkov says the trends indicate Russia is a country heading toward authoritarian rule.

"Authoritarianism is growing, as is hope in the great national leader," he says. "This is a very dangerous tendency. Every political party has been discredited. Unified Russia is only influential as a result of its connection to the president. We are heading toward a one-party system."

A major factor in the voter optimism about the future, analysts say, is the high energy prices that have led to better living standards for many Russians.

"They hope that the flow of oil that is filling up Russia will continue," says Leonid Kesselman, the head of the Center for Sociological Studies. "And they hope that the people who are profiting from this will not be too selfish and will share. This is a realistic assessment of the situation."

Indeed, when likely voters were asked to identify what they expected after the elections, more than half (52.1 percent) said improved living standards; more than two-fifths (42.7 percent) said higher salaries and pensions. Just 5 percent, by contrast, said greater democracy.

Voting Still Important

Despite the conspicuous cynicism about the democratic process, however, more than two-thirds of the voters surveyed said that democratic elections were at least somewhat important for Russia -- although fewer than one in 10 said they were "essential."

Nearly 40 percent of likely voters said their motivation in going to the polls would be a sense of duty, rather than a belief that their actions would bring about change, or a desire to support a particular party or candidate.

Kesselman says some voters do sincerely yearn for Western-style democracy, but most are simply repeating the rhetoric of an elite that, in word if not in deed, still professes support for a democratic system despite an overwhelming drive at centralized power.

"They are speaking honestly. They are following the example of the head of our 'power vertical' [Putin]," he says. "He also says he is interested in democratic values. He is always talking about his trust in the constitution, democracy, and all these beautiful things. So I don't see any particular contradiction here."

But Levada head Gudkov says that, despite optimism about the future and tacit acceptance of what voters see as a corrupt electoral process, many people are growing increasingly estranged from politics.

"The mood is one of disappointment and alienation from politics," he says. "The impression is that elections are a formality that is necessary for the authorities but are not connected to people's lives and problems. People do not believe in the significance of elections here as they do in democratic countries."

The Levada Center conducted the survey -- a nationally representative sample of 4,319 respondents -- for RFE/RL from October 2-23. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.49 percent.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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