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Can President Medvedev make the earth move?

Vladimir Zvonovsky
20 November 2009

In his annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, President Dmitry Medvedev proposed, among other things, “investigating the idea of reducing the number of time zones”. He said that this would lead to more effective government.

One cannot but agree with the President that deciding on a system for calculating time is a form of public administration. A group newly come to power tries to make fundamental changes in the life of the population under its jurisdiction.  These changes fall into three main groups: vocabulary (for example, new forms of everyday address: “citizen”, “comrade”), organization of space (renaming of towns, construction or demolition of monuments, buildings, walls, roads and other communications) and time (introduction of a new calendar, for example after the French revolution). These innovations create a new everyday reality and deflect people from ideas of wanting to change the political regime, which would transform life and its customary everyday boundaries for every citizen in the country.

It is not surprising that Russian law places the adoption of one time zone or another entirely within the jurisdiction of the government.   This means there is no obligation to pay any attention at all to the opinion of the people or even of territorial local governments (Decree №1706 RSFSR Supreme Soviet of 23.10.1991).

Unfortunately, we do not know what exactly President Medvedev is proposing. It is hardly likely to involve any astronomical innovations: the dimension of the continental part of Russia from east to west, excluding Kaliningrad, will remain 165°. So the difference between these points will remain the same – 10-11 hours. The proposal probably involves something else. Looking at the map of the time zones in Russian regions, it probably means that some zones, currently in force in a very small number of regions, will simply be abolished and those regions will be transferred to neighbouring zones. For example, the fourth time zone (UTC/GMT +4) currently includes only the Samara Oblast (3.2 million residents) and Udmurtia (1.6 million); the sixth (UTC/GMT +6) includes the Omsk Oblast (2.1 million), the Tomsk Oblast (1.0 million), the Novosibirsk Oblast (2.7 million) and the Altai Krai (2.6 million);  the eighth time zone includes the Irkutsk Oblast (2.4 million) and Buryatia (0.9 million).

The president’s proposal would appear to affect the population of these regions. A total of almost 17 million people live there. The calculation of time may seem superficial and of secondary importance, but it is one of the basics of life for both the individual and society as a whole.

In 1989-91 there was an attempt to move the Samara Oblast to the third time zone.  It was unsuccessful:  the newspapers, radio and television programmes were swamped by letters from angry citizens unhappy with this step. The idea had to be abandoned, though it was fully supported by another section of the population. There was an additional incentive, as it was proposed to move Samara not into some abstract time zone, but into the Moscow zone. Almost all the regions in the European part of the country moved to the Moscow zone at this time. The same idea had also been discussed in 1997-1998 and 2008, but as the percentage of people against the idea had been the same for 20 years, the plan did not go ahead.

The current discussions cover questions of political and economic expediency, but the main issue is how ready people are for this change and the extent to which they believe the new system will be more convenient and acceptable.

We used two indicators of attitude towards changing the time zone in the region: individual acceptance and social justification. The first considers the attitude of an individual to a change in the time zone, and the second how this individual assesses the benefit/harm of this change for the region in general. There can obviously be significant variation: a pensioner may be personally indifferent to a change in time zone, but consider it to be beneficial for the region. And a housewife may consider the change to be harmful for herself, but not know how it will affect society as a whole.

Our 2009 study showed that a third (33%) of the population in the Samara Oblast consider a move to the Moscow time zone would be favourable for the region as a whole. Approximately as many (30%) think the move cannot be justified. The rest had difficulty answering. As we can see, there are approximately as many people against as there are in favour.  At the same time, unlike elections or other political decisions, this plan would change the time zone forever, which means that the groups opposed to the change would have to be much more active than they would in any other situation. Finally, not all voters are affected by election results, but a change in time zone would affect absolutely everyone in the region. In other words, the usual methods for implementing political decisions at electoral level will not necessarily be as effective in other spheres of public life.

These doubts are based on the fact that attitudes to changing the region’s time zone remain steady. In 1998 and 1991 there was 35% support for changing to Moscow time i.e. changes of governors and presidents made little difference.  But opposition to the change is growing: in 1991 it was 19% and in 1998 26%.   Now it’s 30%.

Rates of individual support have also not changed greatly. Over 10 years of observation, the number has fluctuated between 47% and 40%, and opponents between 24% and 29%. Thus, although supporters of the move to the Moscow time zone predominate, the percentage of opponents remains significant and the ratio between them over time is very stable. This is what forced the local authorities to return to the former system of calculation in the last century.

Popular science of the time had no difficulty blaming the change in the daylight hours not only for an increase in road accidents and a rise in electricity expenses at home and at work, but also a drop in the harvest yield, the egg-laying capacity of chickens and other hypotheses difficult to prove.  There were also some which were completely unverifiable, such as the increased headaches experienced by one resident protesting against the introduction of the new time zone. The authorities must be prepared to deal with the headache of possible active opposition to the proposed “improvement” to the running of the country.

Seasonality is an important feature of attitudes to the time change.  Public opinion is affected by the amount of daylight hours at the time of the survey: the most favourable ratio between supporters and opponents changes depending on when residents are asked to vote. Individual acceptance of the change grows to 43% in August, but in January it falls to 34%.

The president’s proposal may be originally administrative (to make governing the country simpler and cheaper), but it is a clear attempt to create a new time reality for the life of over 15 million Russians in far-flung regions. It will meet with considerable resistance from the dissatisfied minority (at least in the Samara Oblast).

At the same time, as the experience of the Samara Oblast shows, the main wave of dissatisfaction over the decision doesn’t make itself felt on the day after the move to the new system, but approximately a year later. Public opinion will link any negative event to the new time zone, and if the authorities aren’t prepared for this, the dissatisfaction at the private decision will be extended to the authorities in general and their individual representatives.

Of course, this attitude can be worked on by an intensive information campaign, though recent methods developed by the authorities during election campaigns are unlikely to be of much use. Their main aim was to convince the average voter that only they, the authorities, should engage in any political activity in Russia; political activity outside permitted organizations was declared illegal and subversive (“orange”). People gradually left the political scene, leaving behind mainly groups dependent on the authorities (public sector workers, pensioners and rural residents etc.).

But this is not an appropriate strategy for forming an attitude to time i.e. to something that affects every one of us directly and all the time. One could say that voter activity here will always be 100%, so forcing them to change their preferences and preventing them being active in this sphere will only happen if the sun can be ordered to move.  Whatever the solution, there will always be people who are dissatisfied.  In the past everything could be laid at the door of the bad health system and/or UFOs.  Now the focus for their discontent could be the improved “system of governing the country with fewer time zones.”

Vladimir Zvonovsky is a sociologist and President of the Social Research Fund in Samara, Russian Federation

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