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Russia: Elections? What Elections? Voters Profess Little Or No Interest In Upcoming Duma Polls

With 10 days to go before parliamentary elections, the latest poll finds that many Russians could not care less and have not been following the campaign.

Prague, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian voters in recent weeks have been deluged with opinion polls tracking the fortunes of the various parties contesting seats in the State Duma.

But one survey puts the whole exercise into perspective. Sociologists at Russia's VTsIOM-A polling agency asked a representative sample of 1,600 people in 40 regions across the country how closely they have been following the campaign.

The answer?

Seventy percent of respondents said they had little or no interest in the campaign, while only 6 percent of those surveyed said they were following the campaign with great interest.

Yurii Levada, head of the polling agency that conducted the survey and one of Russia's best-known sociologists, tells RFE/RL the results don't surprise him: "And what is there to interest them? Nobody's expecting anything interesting from these elections -- no change in course, no change in the composition of the people who rule the country is envisaged, and everyone knows this. So that's why there's such feeble interest."

According to Levada, there are several factors at work. Perhaps most importantly, the campaign thus far has been dull, lacking any captivating issues. Although the Communists appear to be running a close second to the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, little appears to be at stake this time around, unlike in previous electoral contests, such as Russia's 1996 presidential elections.

"In 1996, there was a direct and painful confrontation between the Communists and [Boris] Yeltsin, and everyone who did not want a comeback by the Communists had to support Yeltsin, even though many didn't really want to do this. But that was then. There was tension. Now there is no tension."

Andrei Piontkovskii, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, says this lack of "tension" is the result of President Vladimir Putin's policies. While Yeltsin managed to have Russia's Constitution written in a way that concentrated power in the executive, Putin's reforms finished the job. Piontkovskii says the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, lost much of its independence, and the Duma has become little more than a toothless talking shop, whose members are mainly concerned with maintaining their perks and ingratiating themselves to the government.

"People see how the Duma has worked over the past four years, and they see that Putin's concept of 'managed democracy' has been fully implemented and that there is no political life, there are no political battles in the Duma. It has become a voting machine. And if you recall that the Federation Council has been practically gutted, then the legislature, as an independent branch of government, does not exist. It has become a department of the executive branch."

Widespread reporting by Russian newspapers of political parties allegedly "selling" coveted spots on their candidate lists to rich businessmen has furthered the perception that the process is tainted and to a large extent predetermined, reinforcing the feeling among average voters that they have little chance to influence the outcome on 7 December.

Piontkovsky says many people recall Josef Stalin's cynical comment of some 70 years ago in this regard: "Stalin said, as you remember: 'It's not important how they vote. The important thing is how we count the votes.'"

One particularly revealing figure in the VTsIOM-A poll was the 12 percent of respondents who said they believed that candidates for the pro-government party, United Russia, had performed best in recent television debates.

In fact, United Russia has intentionally not taken part in any TV debates, preferring to stick to a well-financed advertisement campaign that clearly emphasizes its ties to the Kremlin. Sociologist Yuri Levada says the poll results indicate the strategy appears to be working. Russian voters, he says, have gotten the message.

"People indirectly know that they should support this party, but they don't really follow it and they don't really know what it is. The only thing they know is that it's connected to the president, and this is the only thing that saves this party, as you understand."

Putin continues to enjoy record approval ratings, so riding on his coattails should serve United Russia well. The recent jailing of Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovskii has boosted Putin's popularity, from 73 percent in October to an unassailable 82 percent, according to Levada.

"This event had a strong influence on the president's job approval rating. His rating grew. The majority of the population approved of the attack against Yukos and Khodorkovskii because the very rich are extremely disliked in this country and people are ready to believe any accusation against them. Because of this, in a measurable period of time, Putin's job approval rating grew significantly."

In sum, it appears Russian voters do not see the upcoming Duma elections as important, and the campaign has matched these low expectations. Paradoxically, say analysts, next year's presidential poll could be much more interesting. Although another Putin victory is not in doubt, there is the possibility that a strong challenger could emerge, backed by an alliance of opposition parties allied with big business in the aftermath of the Yukos affair.

That at least, would restore some of the missing "tension" in Russian politics.