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Russia: RFE/RL Poll Shows Voters Approaching Election With Mix Of Hope, Cynicism

Would Vladimir Putin's popularity ensure a Kremlin win? (AFP) It's all a mirage. Russian voters are not really picking the next president. Candidates and their platforms are practically meaningless. The elections are not being conducted honestly.

These are some of the opinions held by Russian voters on the eve of presidential elections, according to a recent poll commissioned by RFE/RL.

But despite such election-season skepticism, more than three-quarters of Russian voters say they plan to cast ballots in the March 2 vote. It is an election that President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to win easily.

Political analysts say the apparently contradictory results illustrate an emerging social contract between a majority of Russians and their rulers: you provide us with stability and more creature comforts, and we will give you our uncritical support.

"There is an unwritten agreement in which people have received a certain level of personal freedoms and a rise in their living standards," Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center explains to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"They have therefore decided to let the authorities do what they wish among themselves and not to interfere in their internal political decisions," Petrov continues. "Given this situation, people don't pay particular attention to how honestly elections are conducted."

Indeed, a large plurality of voters -- between 40 and 45 percent -- say they believe the election will bring about noticeable changes in their standards of living.

With Putin's Blessing

Sociologist Boris Dubin of the Levada Center, which conducted the poll for RFE/RL together with the Washington-based InterMedia Survey Institute, says these expectations are tied to voters' hopes that the new president will continue Putin's policies.

"What Russians hope for most of all is a continuation of Putin's course," Dubin says. "They see Medvedev as a continuation of Putin's course."

According to the nationally representative poll, conducted from January 11-21, less than 40 percent say Russian elections are conducted honestly. That's low, but it is a twofold increase from October, when the same question was asked in the run-up to December's elections to the State Duma.

Analysts say that this is due to the fact that, with Putin's blessing and glowing coverage on state-controlled media, Medvedev is so popular that more and more people believe it won't even be necessary to falsify results on polling day.

"The increase in trust that the election will be honest is connected to Medvedev's high popularity," Carnegie Center's Petrov says. "The Kremlin and the authorities have no reason to falsify the results if the Kremlin's candidate will easily win in the first round."

By extension, a large majority of Russian voters -- more than 65 percent -- believe that the results of the election depend on Putin and his Kremlin administration. Less than one in five voters, meanwhile, think their ballots will determine the next president.

Petrov says this reflects a pragmatic understanding on the part of Russian voters about how elections really work in their country.

"I think the answer to this question reflects the situation given the political machine that operates during elections," he says. "Citizens are completely rational and completely pragmatic. I would say the 20 percent that believe that who becomes the next president depends on their will is, in my opinion, optimistic."

And large majorities -- more than three-quarters, according to the poll -- say they are prepared to go out and vote on March 2. Such high levels of voter engagement reflect the fact that "voting in an election is more a demonstration of loyalty than a means to influence politics," according to Petrov. "This speaks to the fact that people approach elections like a ritual, just as they did in the Soviet past."

Putin has said that he would be willing to serve as Medvedev's prime minister should he win, and Medvedev has said he would love to have the current president run his government. Russian voters are divided over what role Putin will play in the future.

Some 46 percent say he will be "just the prime minister." But a total of 35 percent think he will retain power somehow -- either by returning to the Kremlin as president (8 percent), influencing Medvedev from behind the scenes (18 percent), or becoming Russia's "national leader" who will rule the country from above the political system (11 percent).

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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