Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: February 13, 2008

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

Would Vladimir Putin's popularity ensure a Kremlin win?

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).

Russia's Medvedev No Democratic Alternative

By RFE/RL analyst Robert Coalson
It isn't hard to find examples of Russian First Deputy Prime Minister and all-but-certain presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev making sweeping affirmations of liberal values.

"Today we are building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy," Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007, making a point of speaking this paragraph of his speech in English. "This democracy requires no additional definition. This democracy is effective and is based on the principles of the market economy, supremacy of the law, and government that is accountable to the rest of society. We are fully aware that no undemocratic country has ever become truly prosperous, and this for the simple reason that it is better to have freedom than not to have it."

For those who missed the message the first time around, this excerpt is featured prominently at the top of the English-language page of Medvedev's campaign website ( So, too, is a translated version of a July 2007 interview with "Ekspert," in which Medvedev opines that "adding words to further define the term 'democracy' creates an odd aftertaste and gives rise to the thought that perhaps what is meant is some kind of different, unconventional democracy."

Break With Tradition?

Observers often note that Medvedev's advocacy of a democracy that "requires no additional definition" would seem to be a rejection of the semiofficial ideology of "sovereign democracy" that is the brainchild of President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, and that is seen as the philosophical justification for the rapid-fire consolidation of government power within Putin’s power vertical.

When Medvedev was anointed as Putin’s successor in January, many were cautiously optimistic that a new political trend could be in the offing, although no one believed the heir would stray far from Putin’s line. The naming of the relatively liberal technocrat was welcomed as a favorable alternative to silovik Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov or other hard-line presidential also-rans. headlined its coverage of Medvedev's christening simply: "100 Times Better Than Ivanov.”

Leaders of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces were harshly critical of the Byzantine way in which Medvedev is being brought to power, but offered relatively little criticism of the man himself.

Medvedev won plaudits again last month with his first major campaign event, a speech before Kremlin-friendly civil-society activists. During that address, Medvedev -- a lawyer by training -- lamented Russia's tradition of "legal nihilism," a curse that "goes back to the dawn of time in Russia." Medvedev noted that Russia exceeds all European countries in terms of "disregard for the law," both on the part of citizens and of officials.

However, he offered no solutions to the problem, saying merely, "We need to understand clearly: if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one." In a subsequent speech to the Association of Lawyers of Russia, Medvedev said the key to overcoming legal nihilism lies in organizing "a system of legal education that reaches out to schools, universities, and the media, getting them all involved." In the speech to civil-society advocates, he paid lip service to the idea of "a powerful and independent media," but speaking to the lawyers he said a key component of his legal-education system will be a new state-controlled television channel, Law TV.

Product Of The System

Expanding the state media sector to combat legal nihilism shows a distinct lack of imagination that could ultimately doom Medvedev's efforts, even if he is sincere. Fundamentally, however, there's good reason to believe he's not. Medvedev was right to note in his speech to civil-society activists that legal nihilism is a product of deep-seated public cynicism, a cynicism that has been cultivated by centuries of inept, closed, and unaccountable government. But he seems unwilling or unable to accept that he has now become a key component of that unaccountable system, and a key beneficiary of it. As a result, his declarations -- to the extent that anyone pays attention to them in the context of a political system where everything is predetermined -- merely add to the public's distrust.

In democratic systems where the electorate bestows legitimacy on the elected, politicians must state their positions publicly before they are elected. Medvedev, however, is taking a different tack, playing by the rules of a corrupted system. He has declined to participate in election debates. He has failed to speak out against the state media, which are giving him exponentially more coverage than they are granting his opponents. He has watched silently as rigged election laws have been used to sideline former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and others who sought to participate in the presidential election. He has said nothing as opposition figures have been harassed and jailed and rallies violently broken up. He has, in short, accepted the advantages of an undemocratic, nihilistic system as if they were his due.

Of course, it is too much to expect that, prior to assuming power, Medvedev would break with the current system, even if he were secretly bent on, as he said in Davos, "building new institutions based on the fundamental principles of full democracy." But he has clearly passed on many opportunities to make forceful declarations in favor of those principles.

And there are signs that the public, although resigned to Medvedev's ascendancy and pleased with the prospect of continued stability, is not convinced by his democratic pronouncements. A poll last month asked voters to characterize Medvedev. About 40 percent of respondents mentioned his "intellect," while the same number touted his "professionalism." Just 11 percent, however, cited his "honesty."

OSCE Election Monitor Cancels Plans To Monitor Russian Vote

ODIHR Director Christian Strohal

Citing what it described as unacceptable restrictions from Moscow, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) main election watchdog has canceled plans to monitor Russia's upcoming presidential vote.

In a statement released on February 7, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced that it will not send a monitoring mission for the March 2 election, which President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to win handily.

Authorities in Moscow said the ODIHR's observers would be allowed to come to Russia no sooner than February 20, less than two weeks before the election. But the organization says it needs its teams in place by February 15 at the latest if it is to conduct a meaningful assessment of the vote.

"Well, I certainly regret these circumstances," ODIHR Director Christian Strohal told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview shortly after the decision was announced. "We have made every effort to come to an understanding for allowing us to do our professional job."

Western governments view ODIHR's evaluations as the key yardstick of whether elections it monitors in Russia and the former Soviet republics are free and fair. Russian officials, on the other hand, allege that the group is biased and is being used as a tool by Western governments to attack Russia and its neighbors.

The decision to cancel the observer mission is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between the ODIHR and the Kremlin over election monitoring. ODIHR also canceled plans to monitor Russia's parliamentary elections in December due to similar restrictions imposed by Russian authorities.

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on February 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov harshly criticized ODIHR's move, and accused the organization of trying to change the rules for election monitoring.

"The ODIHR has invented its own rules," Lavrov said. "The main problem [with these rules] is that they are totally nontransparent. We cannot understand why they are insisting so harshly and rudely on sending their mission here a month before [the election]. And in general, it is not clear what they are going to do."

Strohal rejected this, saying that in the 2004 Russian presidential election, the organization was allowed to send monitors who were on the ground early and were able to work without restrictions.

"Four years ago, we had none of these limitations and restrictions. We had full cooperation for the whole observation with a core team, with long-term observers who came more than a month ahead of elections, several hundred short-term observers, and so on," Strohal said. "And so I would very much hope that Russia finds a way back to that sort of full cooperation with the organization."

ODIHR officials say it is customary for the organization to have teams of analysts on the ground throughout the country for one to two months prior to an election. This group evaluates the work of election officials, the media environment, the legislative framework, and whether basic rights are being honored.

ODIHR officials say the Russian timetable has already prevented them from observing important parts of the election process, including the registration of candidates and the work of the media.

Kremlin critics have complained that they have been frozen out of the state-controlled media and that key opposition figures like former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov have been prevented from running in the election.

Strohal told RFE/RL the current situation in Russia contrasts sharply with that in other former Soviet states, where the ODIHR has not experienced similar problems monitoring elections.

"We have been on the ground with election-observation missions in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. We are on the ground at the moment in Armenia and, of course, we are on the ground, we have been on the ground also in Georgia," he said. "So, in none of these circumstance have we encountered any difficulties, restrictions or limitations for the deployment of our election observation."

Separately, the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly has also abandoned plans to send observers to the Russian election. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the sole remaining Western body that had originally planned to send observers, has declined to comment on whether it would proceed with a monitoring mission.

(with agency reports)

Ingushetian Opposition Claims President Has Predetermined Election Outcome

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
The independent website posted on February 3 the lists of candidates for the March 2 elections to a new republican parliament registered by the four political parties participating. The website further claims that President Murat Zyazikov has decided in advance how many candidates from each party will be elected. Meanwhile, one of the republic's largest teyps (clans), the Aushevs, convened a meeting on February 2 of some 1,500 of its members who selected one of their number to represent them in the new legislature. Other clans propose doing the same, according to, and, if the outcome of the March 2 election proves to be rigged, establishing an alternative legislature.

The four parties participating in the election are the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia, with a list of 39 candidates of whom Zyazikov has allegedly decreed that 21 should win mandates: and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party, and the A Just Russia/Rodina/Party of Life bloc with 10, six and 22 candidates, respectively, of which two from each party will allegedly be elected. The Unified Russia list is headed by Makhmud Sakalov, speaker of the outgoing parliament. also posted on February 3 what it claims is a letter sent by the republic's Interior Ministry to the Election Commission identifying registered candidates who have fallen foul of the law. Five Unified Russia candidates fall into that category (four of them among the 21 allegedly guaranteed election), as do four from A Just Russia, and two from the LDPR. None of those latter six candidates is among those reportedly singled out for inclusion in the new parliament.

As noted above, the Aushev clan reacted with outrage to the revelation that President Zyazikov has apparently handpicked the deputies to be "elected" to the new parliament. The website on February 2 quoted an unnamed clan representative as saying that the clan meeting chose as its proposed parliamentarian Magomed-Sali Aushev, a deputy in the outgoing parliament. The clan representative acknowledged that that decision has no legal force, but at the same time he argued that it is up to the authorities to decide how to facilitate their representative's inclusion in the new legislature. If they fail to do so, he warned, the entire clan will boycott both the parliamentary ballot and the Russian presidential election to be held the same day. He said other influential clans should follow the Aushevs' example. But although claimed on February 3 that the Yevloyev, Kartoyev, and Ozdoyev clans plan to do so, there have been no reports to date of any comparable clan decisions.

Late on February 1, the organizers of the mass protest rescheduled from January 26 (when police intervened violently to prevent would-be participants congregating in Nazran) to February 23 decided after discussions with, among other agencies, the Russian presidential apparatus and the Russian Central Election Commission, to postpone it until after the Russian presidential election.

Meanwhile, writing in "Ekspert," Nikolai Silayev made the point that despite their concerted campaign of criticism of President Zyazikov, the opposition in Ingushetia has not proposed any political figure as a viable and acceptable alternative. And Musa Muradov, writing in "Kommersant-Vlast," disclosed that the Russian Interior Ministry has a vested financial interest in the indefinite continuation of the current low-level violence and reprisals in Ingushetia as its personnel receive fat bonuses for their participation in "counter-terrorism" operations there.