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Russia’s Potemkin election

About the author
Shaun Walker is the Moscow correspondent of the Independent. He has written for a number of publications, including and Monocle.

I've been conducting my own personal election poll over the last couple of weeks - every time I go for a drink with Russian friends, or meet people at a party, I ask them if they are going to vote in the parliamentary elections on 2 December 2007. I also called up every young Russian acquaintance in my mobile phone and asked them: "Are you going to vote? If so, who for? If not, why not?"

These people tend to be intelligent graduates in their 20s or early 30s, with decent jobs and pretty good salaries, especially by Russian standards. They are students, architects, journalists, translators, small-time entrepreneurs, NGO workers and PR people.

Most of them are pretty well travelled, almost all speak English (many also speak French, German, Spanish or Italian) and they all use the internet voraciously. These people are able to escape from the suffocating embrace of the Russian TV news, with its limited take on political matters - their language skills and computer savviness means that all the internet's resources are at their fingertips, both foreign news sources and Russian opposition sites.

Shaun Walker is the Moscow correspondent of the Independent. He has written for a number of publications, including and Monocle

Also by Shaun Walker in openDemocracy:

"Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional" (8 October 2006)

"South Ossetia: Russian, Georgian, independent?" (15 November 2006)

"Nagorno-Karabakh's referendum" (14 December 2006) - with Daria Vaisman

A poll taken earlier this month claimed that 79% of 18-24 year olds would vote for United Russia. But these are not the young people that I am familiar with. I reckon that all in all, I spoke to close to 100 people. Of these, a mere seven told me they would vote. Three for the liberal Yabloko party, four for the also-liberal and ever-more-oppositionist Union of Right Forces (SPS); and one of the latter, it turns out, was only doing so because a family member is standing and she didn't want to disappoint him. Nobody said they would vote for United Russia, which is expected to get around 60% of the overall vote.

The majority of people I asked were split pretty equally between those who don't like the system but feel that their vote means nothing and voting would be pointless, and those who simply don't care. A few, fairly representative answers:

"No, I'm an apolitical, indifferent ass of a citizen" (from an investment banker who's studied in the United States)

"I might vote but have no idea who for" (NGO worker)

"What's the point if United Russia will win anyway? I don't want to think about this shit. I have no idea how we can change the idiotic mentality or the corrupt base of the country. So I'm going to stay at home." (graduate student)

"And who am I supposed to vote for? United Russia? What's the point? It's not like I can change anything." (journalist)

"What, you think I don't have better things to do?!" (journalist)

"The polling station is too far from my apartment." (marketing specialist)

I don't make any claims of scientific basis or statistical accuracy for my survey. But I think that the people I know here are a fairly good cross-section of the capital's young professional and academic class. In short, the people who will be the next generation of successful businessmen and political leaders, and the people who - if Russia's as bad as we're led to believe - might be expected to start some kind of revolution.

It's not so much the fact that people don't want to vote that seems worrying - after all, the elections are obviously a joke. It's the fact that, with the exception of a few, people just don't care.

Nobody cares

The apathy pervades all segments of the population, but I find it especially surprising to encounter it among my friends here. In talking with my British friends (a similar demographic to the Russian friends), we might find that we dislike Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and David Cameron and view the Liberal Democrats as ridiculous; though we might not spend hours dissecting the latest figures from the treasury or feel that we have any power to change anything, we do care. We talk about things, we get angry, we have an opinion.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Russia politics and society:

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's immigration challenge" (15 June 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)

Mary Dejevsky, "After Putin" (21 September 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Vladimir Putin for ever" (2 October 2007)

Anna Sevortian, "Russia's seeds of change" (20 November 2007)
In Russia, it's just a big void of apathy. Yes, you have a hardcore of people who are actually engaged in politics - the small percentage of the pro-Kremlin youth brigades who aren't just there for the free ice-cream, and the motley band of brave dissidents and total weirdos that show up for the Other Russia demonstrations. But on the whole, the most educated and intelligent young people just don't care. New prime minister: who cares? Freezing pensioners and dying kids: terrible, but this is Russia, it happens. Beslan school siege: awful, but what can we do?

This sort of apathy suits the authorities, who are terrified of an "orange"-style uprising led by just these people, rather well. But the more general apathy among the population at large, although largely of their own making, worries them, so now they are furiously engaged in the process of putting on a Potemkin election. Not for the outside world - the Kremlin has long stopped caring about whether it upsets Europe or the United States, as the OSCE poll-monitoring fiasco has shown. But for the benefit of its own people.

Despite the fact that United Russia is the only party with a real forum to put across its programme, and the fact that it actually has no programme except support for Putin, the authorities are involved in frantically constructing the bizarre facade of a country engaged with its election. People are being threatened in the workplace that they must vote for United Russia. At a rally of "Fair Russia", another pro-Putin party, that I attended a couple of weeks ago, a group of teenagers were waving flags half-heartedly - as if anyone can be fooled into thinking that a party that was set up less than a year ago has an enthusiastic band of youthful followers. A journalist I met in a Russian region a few weeks ago even told me that he'd heard from someone in the local election committee that they were tracking down the names of the recently deceased to sign up for the vote. Nobody cares, yet we're being told that the turnout will be 60%-65%. Everything will be done to get the turnout figure as high as possible.

Let's pretend

This is the most bizarre part of the whole sham election campaign - the insistence that it should be taken seriously. Salman Rushdie's Shame, a novel of Pakistan, talks about a wonderful concept, known in Urdu as takallouf. Roughly, this is the name given to a situation where Person A is talking nonsense to Person B, and Person B knows that it's nonsense. Moreover, Person A knows that Person B knows it's nonsense. Yet the charade continues and nobody says anything.

Well, takallouf is running wild in these elections, as the newspapers and television talk about democracy, competition between parties, the free choice of Russian citizens. Nobody buys it of course - on the whole most Russians like Putin, but nobody cares about the parliamentary elections, and however many dodgy TV broadcasts they watch or youths they see waving flags, it's unlikely they'll really buy the idea of a real election. But still the noble words come pouring out of the Kremlin and the media.

Of course, takallouf is the currency of authoritarian regimes of all degrees (and many non-authoritarian ones - one only has to think of Tony Blair's protestations of honesty over Iraq). But the desperation to get a high turnout and legitimise the elections is bizarre, especially when most Russians wouldn't really care if they just abolished the parliament and crowned Putin as monarch (and it wouldn't really change the political landscape much either).

Because, for now, political apathy reigns. Those that don't have money have more important things to worry about, and those that do are enjoying the opportunity to make cash and wouldn't want to jeopardise their future by doing something as dangerous and futile as opposing the system. There's a universal belief that all politicians are lying bastards and that, with the exception of Putin, no one is to be trusted.

Among my survey demographic, approval of Putin is much lower than among the general population - perhaps 20% as opposed to a countrywide figure of 80%. But, as one of the respondents of my impromptu survey put it: "What are we supposed to do? Go on a march? What's that going to change? You had 1 million people in the streets protesting against Iraq and what did that do for you? At least now, things are getting better. What's the use of protesting?"

Depressing, perhaps, but he has a point.

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