There has been a lot of analysis in recent months (even years) about the ways the ruling elite in Russia has bolstered its ideological infrastructure – that is, the network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like that are brought to bear in many situations to press the Kremlin’s line or, at least, to blur the non-Kremlin lines.
Orchestrated by deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, this apparent network (it appears to be a horizontal arrangement, but is actually a key component of the power vertical) has proven very successful in containing political discussion and muting dissent. Analyst Nicu Popescu of the Center for European Policy Studies published a nice, three-page description of this network – both within Russia and within the CIS countries – in 2006 that is still worth reading closely.
Polling agencies make up an important part of this network, as a recent RFE/RL Russian Service story notes. The Goliath among Russian pollsters is the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a quasi-state agency that is virtually a wing of the ruling United Russia party. The party is listed as the agency’s main partner organization and VTsIOM’s homepage includes “facts” such as that Russians support United Russia by a margin of 54 percent to the 7 percent of the second-place Communists. Likewise, it notes that party leader and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the country’s most trusted politician (53 percent), followed by President Dmitry Medvedev (43 percent) and a few dwarves lagging back in single digits.
It also informs us that if a presidential election were held right now, Medvedev would win with 48 percent of the vote, followed by Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose support has supposedly dwindled to just 6 percent. Interestingly, VTsIOM apparently decided it wasn’t worth including Putin among the list of possible candidates in its hypothetical presidential poll.
Our Russian Service’s report focused on two recent opinion polls that offered starkly different analyses of public opinion regarding the current economic crisis. One was issued by the Kremlin-friendly VTsIOM and the other by the independent Levada Center, which was founded in 2003 by sociologists who broke away from VTsIOM when they saw which way the wind was blowing.
The VTsIOM report on the crisis found that “the peak of [public] concern about the crisis came in February.” At time, 56 percent of respondents said they were “very worried” about the situation, compared to just 43 percent in April. The poll found that 66 percent of Russians say life has become harder, but the situation is bearable. “In my opinion,” VTsIOM General Director Valery Fyodorov told RFE/RL, “that is perhaps the most indicative figure showing that a process of adapting to the crisis is under way.”
Levada Center researcher Natalya Bondarenko says “the growth of pessimism” has slowed in Russia, but there is no increase in optimism about the crisis. Seventy percent of respondents in their study last month said they expect unemployment to grow. Twenty-one percent said they personally or a close relative had already lost a job in recent months.
Nikolai Petrov attributes the differences in interpretation (and dissemination of those interpretations) to VTsIOM’s pro-government leaning as opposed to the Levada Center’s independence. He told RFE/RL that recent local elections in Murmansk, Sochi, and elsewhere have shown that “increasingly often the power vertical is not working,” meaning that “the federal center has weakened and those mechanisms that ensured loyalty – primarily, large infusions of cash – don’t work anymore.”
“We are seeing a ‘thawing’ of society,” Petrov added. “At the same time, we are seeing a ‘thawing’ of the ruling elite. The appearance of a monolith is being maintained, but on closer inspection very serious and intensifying conflicts are visible.”
I’m not sure how much I agree with Petrov’s analysis, although I do think some sort of “thawing” is taking place (not a liberalization, but a kind of reorientation as factions within the ruling elite compete for a dwindling pool of resources). Perhaps what we have seen in recent local elections is an attempt (a possibly premature attempt) by Surkov to put the mechanics of rigging elections into the hands of United Russia directly.
He is surely smart enough to know the period between national elections is the ideal time for trying out new processes that could come in handy during the next national cycle. And he may yet be confident enough to think that he can devise mechanisms that will produce the same reliable national results as he achieved in 2007 and 2008, but without quite as many egregiously embarrassing lapses in the Kremlin’s official “we are marching toward democracy” narrative.