Unlike viewers of Russian state-controlled television, readers of The Power Vertical will know that on September 16 leading opposition politicians created a new movement called For A Russia Without Arbitrariness And Corruption.
You can hardly blame Russian television for ignoring this development, since all the mainstream media in the country seem to have simultaneously discovered the long-standing corruption allegations against former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and are still rushing to catch up on that story (it is a larger and more pathetic version of what happened when Russian state television suddenly discovered the Khimki highway story a couple of years after the fact and had to suddenly start covering it in the middle after President Dmitry Medvedev suddenly mentioned the controversy).
But I would like to return to the anticorruption coalition of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, and former Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov for a moment because the Levada research center this week released the results of an opinion poll on the topic.
I’ve written before about the need to look at opinion polls in Russia very carefully and have been critical of some analysts who take at face value the surveys that consistently show Vladimir Putin as the “most popular” politician in Russia, with Medvedev tagging along closely at his heels. Ignoring Russia’s closed and manipulated information bell jar, these observers cherry pick the results of these polls while ignoring poll after poll that show Russians strongly disapprove of the antidemocratic and kleptocratic policies that Putin has pursued over the last decade.
Levada Center polls have found that 94 percent of Russians feel they have no influence over what happens in the country, one-third are concerned about human rights abuses, 68 percent feel the law does not protect them, and only 4 percent think their property is secure.
The fact that most Russians see no alternative to the tandem is a result of political oppression in Russia, not of Putin’s supposed charisma. When he wins a free election, we’ll take another look at his popularity.
But the Levada poll on For A Russia Without Arbitrariness And Corruption is worth consideration because it gives at least some baseline feeling for how popular the so-called liberals are among the Russian public. And it also conveys pretty strongly that Russians are not fooled by the pseudo-democratic political theater that the Kremlin is trying to pass off as something other than authoritarianism.
First, the poll found that 86 percent of Russians had no idea that any such coalition had been formed. Never heard of it. Maybe Russian state media didn’t think the story was worth mentioning because Medvedev seems to have largely given up on his anticorruption mantra in recent months in favor of the “modernization” mantra.
Second, Levada asked the interestingly worded question “will the creators of the coalition succeed in registering it as a party with the Justice Ministry and in participating in the elections for the State Duma in 2011 and the presidential election.” It would be more honest to ask if the authorities will allow these things to happen, since the matter is much more up to the presidential administration than it is up to the leaders of the new coalition.
But respondents saw through the question anyway, with only 8 percent saying “definitely yes,” with 24 percent saying there is a chance the Kremlin might find a minor role in its political theater for such a movement, and 38 percent saying either that “most likely” or “definitely” the new coalition’s creators would not “succeed” in registering or participating in the elections.
To my mind, the most interesting question was “could you vote for a party based on the coalition.” Here, 3 percent said “definitely” and 15 percent said “maybe.” Fifty-two percent said “most likely” or “definitely” not. And 31 percent couldn’t answer.
Now an 18 percent potential electorate (leaving aside the 31 percent that is up for grabs) is pretty impressive for a week-old movement that has already been aggressively marginalized by the political system. In fact, if the party was registered and if the party was allowed to participate in the election and if that election was reasonably competitive and if something like 18 percent of the people voted for it, it would be the second most popular party in Russia, after United Russia. It would rank higher than any of the other parties currently holding seats in the State Duma, the so-called systemic opposition.
Just to recap, in the 2007 Duma elections, United Russia was awarded 64 percent of the vote and handed 70 percent of the seats in the legislature. The Communists came in a valiant second with 11.6 percent, getting 13 percent of the seats. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia polled 8.1 percent and got 9 percent of the seats. And A Just Russia pulled up the rear with 7.7 percent and 8 percent of the seats.
A party that polled 18 percent could have ended up with more than 80 seats in the Duma.
But projecting such speculation forward to the 2011 elections is an exercise in what might be called “counterfactual futurism.” No such party will be registered, no reasonably competitive election will be held, no party that is not controlled by the Kremlin will get any significant number of seats in the Duma.
And opinion polls will continue to show that Vladimir Putin is the most popular person in Russia.