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Russia Report: November 23, 2007

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

By Brian Whitmore

(file photo)

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.

Blaming Moscow, OSCE Says It Won't Monitor Russian Vote

By Jeremy Bransten

ODIHR's Urdur Gunnarsdottir said every effort was made to salvage the monitoring mission

November 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced today that it will not send election observers to monitor Russia’s parliamentary elections on December 2.

The OSCE’s Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) laid the blame for the decision squarely on the Kremlin, saying Moscow had repeatedly denied visa requests for ODIHR’s observers and delayed extending invitations.

"We were constantly receiving assurances that the [invitation from Russia] was forthcoming. It took two months to come," Urdur Gunnarsdottir, ODIHR’s chief spokeswoman, told RFE/RL from Warsaw. "And since the [invitation] arrived two weeks ago, we have not received any visas. We have not been able to deploy any observers, not even our team of logistical people."

This is only the second time that the organization has called off an election observer mission. The last time was in 1996, in Albania.

Today’s announcement by Europe’s main election watchdog caps weeks of tensions between ODIHR and Moscow.

Four years ago -- during the last State Duma elections -- ODIHR dispatched 450 observers to monitor the poll. This year, Russia’s Election Commission said only 70 monitors from the OSCE would be allowed.

But Gunnarsdottir said visas for those 70 people were never made available. "Our observers, when arriving at [Russian] embassies all over Europe, were simply told that [the embassies] had not received any instructions from Moscow and would therefore not be able to issue visas," she said.

Gunnarsdottir said that despite Moscow’s obstructions, ODIHR had made every effort to try to resolve the situation, even dispatching a last-minute negotiating team to Russia. "We managed to send a team of three people from our office to Moscow this week to try to resolve this situation. One was a diplomat and therefore didn't need a visa and one was from a CIS country. They tried everything they could to resolve the situation but were unable to," Gunnarsdottir said.

Returning Blame

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin dismissed ODIHR’s announcement today, saying the monitoring body "has the right to take any decision."

On November 14, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, said the observers only had themselves to blame, saying they had failed to fill in the necessary forms.

ODIHR is generally considered to be the most authoritative election monitoring body in Europe.

But Russia has long pursued efforts to re-orient the OSCE and its agencies toward security issues and away from the democracy agenda, which it calls “politicized.”

Last month, Russia and six other CIS countries -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- circulated a draft proposal calling for the number of ODIHR monitors sent to cover any future election to be limited to 50.

The European Commission today voiced regret over the cancellation of the ODIHR mission and urged President Vladimir Putin to ensure that the polls respect international standards.

'National Leader' Idea Gains Strength

By Brian Whitmore

Recent rally supporting Putin

November 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia has a hot new catchphrase that is obsessing the political elite and is being chanted like a mantra by the media: National Leader.

More than 700 delegates from across the country turned up for a well-orchestrated pep rally in the city of Tver on November 15 to pledge allegiance to President Vladimir Putin and implore him to remain in power after his term ends next year.

Since Putin is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third consecutive term as president, the event's organizers are proposing to grant him a sort of elevated mythological status as Russia's supreme ruler who would lord over any future president or prime minister -- unburdened by troublesome term limits and pesky constitutional restrictions.

The meeting, held in a local theater adorned with Russian tricolor flags and banners reading "For Putin!," followed a wave of demonstrations in support of the president in numerous Russian regions. It resulted in forming an organization called the "All-Russian Council of Initiative Groups to Support Putin."

"We are gathering not for a third term," Pavel Astakhov, a prominent attorney who was elected the organization's leader, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "We respect the president's word and we believe him when he says he will not change the constitution. And since he will not change the constitution, we need to find a new configuration of authority."

Astrakhov later told reporters that his group has gathered 30 million signatures in support of Putin remaining in power as Russia's "national leader."

He insists that that the recent groundswell of pro-Putin demonstrations is a genuine grassroots movement and is not being orchestrated by the Kremlin. Press reports and critics of the Kremlin, however, have alleged that students and state employees have been pressured to attend the rallies.

All Putin All The Time

Keeping Putin in power one way or another has become a fixation that has eclipsed all other issues for Russia's political class.

Elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, are just two weeks away and there has been little meaningful discussion of parties, platforms, programs, or coalitions. Likewise, presidential elections are four months down the road and there are no serious candidates on the horizon.

Instead, it's all Putin all the time. The Russian president is heading the candidate list of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party for the December 2 elections. Their platform is plastered on billboards across the country: "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory." The contents of Putin's fabled plan, however, remain a mystery.

The result of Putin's omnipresence, analysts say, has been an emasculation of the country's political institutions as the Kremlin rallies the masses to support and exalt their leader and keep him in charge no matter what.

"The public agitation about Putin and what should be done to keep him at the helm of Russia after 2008 has essentially eclipsed the Duma election campaign," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in the journal "Russia Profile" recently. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, he adds, "has turned the election into a referendum on the personality of the president, without any discussion of the policies pursued during his rule."

Analysts and critics warn that Russia is moving quickly toward establishing a personality cult around Putin. Russians, of course, are no strangers to such leader cults, which were constructed around Josef Stalin and, earlier, around Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Lev Gudkov, the head of the Moscow-based Levada Center said that as "hope in the great national leader" grows in Russia, so too does "authoritarianism" and the risk of one party rule. "This is a very dangerous tendency," Gudkov said.

Likewise, Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Institute for National Strategy, says Putin's 70-percent approval rating is due not to his policies but rather to the fact that "in the eyes of the people he has re-established the monarchical ritual in Russia."

Putin recently told construction workers in Krasnoyarsk that a strong showing for Unified Russia would give him the "moral right" to continue to exert political influence.

Maintaining The Status Quo

There have been a number of theories about Putin's intentions. The Russian president was initially expected to anoint a loyal successor and maintain influence behind the scenes.

Then, after he named the previously unknown Viktor Zubkov as prime minister in September, word spread that Putin was planning to briefly turn over power to a weak caretaker president who would resign after a respectable interval. This would have allowed Putin to run for president again since the constitution only forbids more than two consecutive terms.

But when Putin announced in October that he would lead Unified Russia's party list and consider serving as prime minister, it fired up speculation that he was going to keep power as a sort of super-powerful premier -- which would become the epicenter of political power while the presidency became largely ceremonial.

Then came the recent wave of calls to make Putin the "National Leader," an amorphous position that some observers have likened to Iran's Supreme Leader -- someone who has ultimate authority but who reigns above the established political system.

"It is not important what Putin will be after 2008 -- head of the leading party, chairman of parliament or prime minister; the most important thing is that he should be the leader of the country,” Astakhov said in Tver on Thursday.

An article posted on Unified Russia's website on November 5 appeared to give official sanction to the idea. Party official Abdul-Khakim Sultygov called for a Civic Assembly to be convened to "formalize the institution of national leader as the foundation of the ‘new configuration of government.'" Sultygov explicitly compared the idea to the Assembly of the Land -- in which Mikhail Romanov was elected tsar in 1613, ending the Time of Troubles.

Analysts say the Kremlin elite has decided that due to the sharp and bitter rivalries in the ruling elite -- particularly among those in the president's inner circle -- Putin must stay because he is the only figure who they believe can act as an arbiter balancing the various factions.

"They are doing everything to maintain the current situation, so that nothing changes," says Leonid Kesselman, founder of the St. Petersburg-based Center for Sociological Studies. "He can be the national leader, the prime minister, president for a third term. Whatever they think up at the last minute, this is what will happen."

Fear Of Orange

The lynchpin, analysts say, is the Duma elections on December 2. Most observers say that if Unified Russia wins a two-thirds majority in the new parliament, which would give them the chance to initiate constitutional amendments, then the Kremlin will pretty much have a free hand.

"The litmus test will be the results of the elections," says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. "They will make their decision on the basis of these results."

Past elections have been marred by widespread accusations of various forms of intimidation and falsification to achieve scripted results. And critics say they expect the Kremlin to easily orchestrate the result they want in December.

Aleksander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and former deputy prime minister, recently told the weekly magazine "Itogi" that Putin would then exploit loopholes in the constitution and electoral laws and run again for president in March.

And the recent wave of pro-Putin demonstrations would certainly provide cover and momentum for such a move.

Nevertheless, some analysts say the flurry of activity and adulation of Putin as Russia enters its election season shows that the Kremlin elite is getting increasingly nervous -- despite Putin's sky-high approval ratings. Kesselman says the thing the elite fears most is a replay of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution or Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution taking place on Russian soil.

"The people are a riddle for them. Sure they are obedient, sure they love their fuehrer," Kesselman said. "But in Ukraine the people were obedient, in Georgia they were obedient, in other places they were obedient. And then, at the last minute, they became disobedient. They are very afraid of this. As I understand, they are not sleeping well."

Is Moscow Behind Georgian Unrest?

By Claire Bigg

Anti-Georgian demonstrators outside the Moscow embassy on November 12

November 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Trading accusations has been a recurrent -- if not dominant -- feature of Georgian-Russian relations since Tbilisi's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was swept to power in 2003. With Georgia in the midst of its worst political crisis in years, fingers are again pointing in Moscow's direction.

Saakashvili has spearheaded the accusations, blaming Russian intelligence services for orchestrating a week of opposition rallies in Tbilisi that spiraled into violence on November 7 after riot police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse rock-throwing protesters, injuring hundreds. Saakashvili, labeling the protests a Russia-backed attempt to overthrow his government, declared a state of emergency.

Angry rhetoric has long been the standard for exchanges between Moscow and Tbilisi. The latest turmoil, however, opened the floodgates for all-out mudslinging.

Moscow branded the allegations "hysteria" and described the beating of peaceful protesters as "democracy, Georgia-style" -- a clear swipe at Saakashvili's pro-Western policies.

Russian-Backed Separatism

Striking back, the embattled Georgian leader accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of seeking to partition his country like the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. "I want to tell you something that I have never spoken about before," Saakashvili told national television viewers on November 12. "Last year, during the Minsk [CIS] summit, President Putin told me, very specifically, that Russia would organize a new Cyprus in Abkhazia."

Moscow's support for the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been at the crux of the protracted bickering between Georgia and its giant neighbor. Saakashvili, who has vowed to restore control over the breakaway regions, accuses Moscow of violating his country's territorial integrity by pumping cash and Russian passports into the two regions.

David Bakradze, Georgia's minister of conflict resolution, this week sounded the alarm, accusing Russia of a military buildup in Abkhazia. He said tanks, rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and about 200 soldiers -- many of them ethnic Chechens serving in Russia's military intelligence (GRU) -- had entered Abkhazia at the Black Sea port of Ochamchira.

The participation of Chechen troops, who fought against Georgian forces in the war between Georgia and Abkhazia, is likely to be perceived as an additional slap in the face for many Georgians, who see their cooperation with Russia as a profound betrayal of Caucasian unity.

The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately rejected Bakradze's claim as a "provocation." Abkhazia's rebel leadership joined in by describing them as "rubbish." Russia has consistently insisted its troops are a peacekeeping contingent.

"We are trying to help people in the hope that peace will be established between peoples," Movsar Usmanov, a Chechen peacekeeper, told RFE/RL. "Considering the fact that we have seen the tragedy of war and know what it is like, we hope that it will be possible to solve this conflict and that these people will live peacefully. Sometimes we use force, but most of the time we operate through words."

Bad Neighborly Relations

Russia, which has made the Georgia unrest a staple of its daily news coverage, has sought to portray itself as a cooperative, unaggressive neighbor. The Russian military, with considerable pomp, on November 13 declared the end of its centuries-long presence in Georgia after shutting down its military base in the Black Sea port city of Batumi. But the suspected troop buildup in breakaway Abkhazia -- and continued doubts over the status of a Russian base in the Abkhaz city of Gudauta -- means the claim rings hollow in Georgia.

Saakashvili's grievances against Moscow reflect a widespread perception in Georgia that Russia is meddling in the tiny Caucasus country, which it continues to treat as its own backyard.

"Russian spies are trying to influence domestic developments. An open aggression is taking place again Georgia, in violation of all international and bilateral agreements," says Georgian political analyst Temur Yakobashvili. "Russians are not even hiding that they are seeking regime change in Georgia by manipulating domestic political developments and influencing various political movements and leaders."

Russia has certainly come under fire for its harsh stance on Georgia since Saakashvili came to power with a pledge to steer his country westward into NATO and the European Union.

In 2006, Moscow slapped a ban on Georgian wine, fruit, vegetables, and mineral water, citing health concerns. Just months later, it imposed further sanctions, cut transport links, and summarily expelled thousands of ethnic Georgians in retaliation for the arrest in Tbilisi of four Russian military officers detained on spying charges. Three Georgians died during deportation.

There is little doubt, even among Russian political analysts, that Russian intelligence services are heavily involved in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But claims of a Russian coup attempt are raising eyebrows, both in Georgia and abroad.

Overplaying The Russia Card?

"The real problems in Georgian-Russian ties center around conflict regions for Georgia, and Georgia's relations with NATO for Russia," says Georgian political expert Marina Muskhelishvili. "We should make a distinction between this and the power struggle between the government and the opposition, which has nothing to do with Russia."

On November 7, during the peak of the violence in Tbilisi, Georgia's Interior Ministry released footage of what it said were negotiations between several leading opposition leaders and Russian intelligence agents. Saakashvili and the Georgian opposition, however, largely see eye to eye when it comes to Russia.

"On the domestic political scene, there's no real basis to say that the Russians are strongly involved," says Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at Britain's Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "Badri Patarkatsishvili, the oligarch who is the main financial supporter of the opposition, is himself wanted in Russia because he's an associate of Boris Berezovsky. If you look at the Georgian opposition, most of them are just as anti-Russian as the government."

Claims that Russian intelligence had a hand in the turmoil that gripped Georgia last week are difficult to verify. But regardless of Russia's possible involvement, Saakashvili's finger-pointing against Moscow is seen by many as an attempt to deflect attention from his own handling of the antigovernment rallies. The brutal dispersal of protesters and the media clampdown that ensued have drawn much criticism abroad, dealing a severe blow to Saakashvili's credentials as the region's most democratic leader.

"It's obviously convenient for President Saakashvili to blame Russia in a time of crisis," says de Waal. "I think this is a card that can be overplayed, and I think many citizens are getting a bit fed up with that."

Amid the current unrest, one thing is certain: the mudslinging between Tbilisi and Moscow has certainly not taken anyone by surprise. Both Georgian and Russian policy watchers says finger-pointing is a time-honored tradition in post-Soviet territory:

"Georgia is reminiscent of Russia's bad political habits," says Sergei Markedonov, an expert at Moscow's Institute for Political and Military Analysis. "Many Russian politicians are genuinely convinced that the West is to blame for everything: the West caused the Orange Revolution, the West caused the Rose Revolution, the West demolished the Soviet Union. Georgian authorities are using exactly the same method. Only here, the evil Russia replaces the evil West. Georgia, Russia, and many post-Soviet countries have a very close mentality. Only the enemy changes."