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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Polls Apart

Washington, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Each of the two political parties now pressing for a vote of no confidence in the current Russian government in order to force new elections may be taking heart from the results of one of two polls released this week which point to the outcome that party seeks.

The Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov would lead according to a poll taken by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion and reported in the Russian media on 7 March, but the pro-Kremlin Unity party would lead if the results found by the organization and reported the same day are correct.

The results reported by these two respected polling groups were even more different than their identification of who would take the lead. The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) said that the Communists would win overall with 35 percent, Unity would follow with 22 percent, and then Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces would each get nine percent. in contrast said that 18 percent of Russians would give their votes to the Unity party led by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, with another 15 percent voting for the Communists, six percent going for Yabloko and five percent for the Union of Rightist Forces.

Such dueling results are nothing new in any country where surveys are taken. First and most obviously, the poll has far more people in the undecided camp, so many that its numbers could in fact be consistent with those reported by VTsIOM which appear so very different.

Second, even though these two polling organizations enjoy relatively good professional reputations, each undoubtedly asked the question in a slightly different way and that can skew the results.

And third, both of these polls concern an event that may not happen at all or if it does will only take place at some uncertain date in the future. Because of that, many people are unlikely to have focused on the question and have not decided how they will vote. And even if they think they know what they will do, their views are likely to shift as an actual election date approaches.

But in addition to these general problems with polls, problems found in longstanding democratic countries as well as those making a transition towards democracy, there are problems with polling that are unique to countries with a long authoritarian tradition.

Even in democracies, many people are not inclined to share their opinions on what they see as sensitive issues with poll takers or others. In post-communist countries, many citizens remain even more reluctant to do so, fearful that their answers will not remain private or will somehow be used against them. That attitude is changing, but it has not disappeared.

Moreover, and again in an often more extreme form than in democratic countries, polls taken well in advance of an election often tend to reflect name recognition more than actual support. When state-controlled media report more on one group than another, that too can have a profound impact on people who are uncertain as to where they will actually come down in the polling booth.

And finally, many people in Russia and other post-communist countries, especially this early in the process, are expressing their preferences for the images they have of various parties rather than for the particular candidates and programs of those parties. As the election grows closer, the impact of these longstanding images may decline relative to that of the candidates and programs.

Thus, expressions of support for or antagonism toward the Communist Party may have relatively little to do with who its candidates are or what they are advocating until very close to election time.

Given how far the polls are apart on this possible election, perhaps the wisest observations being made in Moscow are from those who acknowledge that no one actually knows what would happen if elections were called. Russia's senior election official Aleksandr Veshnyakov made an even more cautionary note, observing this week that in unsettled times, elections tend to become unpredictable and those who are not supposed to have a chance sometimes in fact win.