oDR

Russia: an opinion-poll democracy

Putin Medvdev 3.jpg

On the eve of Presidential elections, Dmitry Medvedev has sprung to life and inserted political distance between himself and Putin. Polls show Russians would like both leaders to stand for election, and to choose between them, but such a democratic development would be highly unusual for Russia, writes Alexei Levinson.

Alexei Levinson
16 May 2011

For a variety of reasons, electoral democracy has become a precious goal for many people across the world. Most probably, this can be explained in terms of a global process of secularisation, which has considerably reduced the opportunities of those in power to legitimise authority by divine right (as monarchies do).  For those aspiring to supreme power, general elections have become the best — indeed the only — way of legimitising their claim. At the same time, general elections also present the greatest risk of not winning (or losing) power. All of these factors together explain why, on the one hand, regimes are keen to take on the expense and the risks of carrying out elections; and on the other, why a great many more take on the expense and the risks connected with circumventing procedures and falsifying results.

Putin Medvedev 1

Vladimir Putin circumvented constitutional limits to 
his presidencey by selecting Dmitry Medvedev to
keep the top chair warm four years

Statehood has been in existence in Russia for quite a long time, but it was in the form of autocratic government. There were either no social groups desirous — or able to — limit the autocracy (if there were any, they were weak and marginal). Strong groups fighting for resources and power had to try and gain influence over the autocrat, so they had no need of an electoral system. The revolution of 1917 put an end to autocracy and began to prepare Russia for genuine general elections: Russia was about to become a democratic republic. The Bolshevik uprising of November 1917 put an end to this short-lived process, and for ten years the country lived through a period of unconcealed dictatorship. 

In the mid 1920s, the Bolsheviks suddenly began to portray themselves as democrats, proposing an ornamental parliament with an election ritual for its members. The Soviet system in the USSR was more and more frequently described as a democracy, but with the word “socialist” added on. When the world was divided up between the victors of WWII, regimes very like that in the USSR were established in those countries that fell into the Soviet sphere of interest and influence. Such regimes were called “people’s democracies.”

Neither Imperial Russia nor the Soviet Union and its subject states had parties in the accepted modern Western sense. What they did have were court “parties”, as understood in Europe during the absolutist times. As has been noted on several occasions before, the widely cited “parties” of Westernisers and Slavophiles (together with their historical prototypes and subsequent alloforms) were in no way political parties or even civic movements. They were on the one hand discourse and conventional ways of thinking, and ever-present court parties on the other. Their influence on central government in Russia and its policies alternated, but what frequently happened was that central government simply employed the ideological resource that it thought necessary at the time. 

Statehood has been in existence in Russia for quite a long time, but it was in the form of autocratic government. There were either no social groups desirous — or able to — limit the autocracy (if there were any, they were weak and marginal).

Autocratic government can move in either of two (strictly speaking, mutually exclusive) directions. It can be “hawkish”, and tighten the screws, or “dovish” and declare a thaw.  But these were gestures and no more than that. The government was neither right- nor left-wing, whatever its ardent supporters or ferocious critics might think. Power is hard-headed and above these divisions, although it can, when necessary, identify with either.  With some caveats, this describes the current political situation in Russia.

In attempting to comply with the formal constitutional requirements banning him from occupying the presidential chair for more than two consecutive terms, Putin selected Medvedev to keep that chair warm for him for four years. Putin’s popularity ratings did not change when he moved over to his reserve position as prime minister, which shows that the people had understood and accepted this subterfuge and that they accepted Medvedev as Putin’s temporary shadow. Popularity ratings for these two figures simultaneously increased or wavered, but, interestingly, the distance between them never altered. All the socio-demographic groups we surveyed, covering the whole population from 18 upwards, expressed approval of Putin somewhat more solidly than they did for Medvedev. The difference was usually 6-8 percentage points, i.e. it was statistically reliable.

Medvedev’s popularity ratings were of secondary importance until halfway through his presidential term, when the numbers in favour of his re-election in 2012 started to increase and the gap between his and Putin’s ratings started to decrease (in March 2011 it was reduced to 2.5 percentage points). His supporters included very varied groups of people who had for one reason or other lost interest in the continuation of the Putin political line. Within the dualistic Russian political system, an alternative to Putin started looking like a liberal alternative to an authoritarian regime. 

It has to be said that it was Putin himself who first gave rise to this perception. For a long time he strung along two heirs-apparent, Ivanov and Medvedev, who were regarded in the traditional way as either conservative and hawkish (Ivanov) or liberal and dovish (Medvedev). This perception was more important than either the words or deeds of these two figures. Even though Putin chose the “liberal” to be his temporary replacement, Medvedev was landed with introducing several measures which were far from liberal, including increasing the presidential term to 6 years (from 2012). Yet in the eyes of a large section of the public he has remained “the liberal”.

In the middle of his term, this almost artificial figure suddenly came to life and started giving out real liberal signals. He did this through keynote speeches and articles, and his pre-election platform, which developed for him by a group of liberally-minded economists. Society has at best reacted cautiously to these gestures. Yet the consolidation of various elite and sub-elite groups around Medvedev as a symbolic alternative to Putin has continued. And the logic of political dualism has pushed Putin towards a more conservative, fundamentalist position.

The situation as it has developed is one that is usual in many Western democracies: a choice between two ways forward, represented by two politicians. But it is a situation without precedent for Russian society. It’s as if no longer is it government deciding in what guise to operate, but the people who have to choose which government they prefer.

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Many Russians believe that Putin and Medvedev
will come to an agreement as to which of them will
be president.

Here we return to the question raised at the beginning of this article about democracy, more particularly about elections as a sign and instrument of democracy. In the short period of democratic development in Russia at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, there was enthusiastic participation in “real” democratic elections and it was this that enabled the Russian elites and Russian politics to renew themselves. Later on, however, the media began to be used as a way of exerting influence on the electoral process. Then came the so-called dirty tricks and falsification, which, having started in elections at lower levels of government, began to move upwards. 

In recent years, changes have been made to electoral laws to facilitate electoral manipulation. The practice of falsifying and recounting the results at the level of local electoral commissions came into being and was turned into a finely-tuned system. Tens of thousands of people have gone through this school: mostly volunteers, but very strictly controlled by the ruling party. In other words, elections were once more turned into a means of demonstrating loyalty to the authorities and were no longer seen as an instrument used by society to make its choice.

Now, however, there is a real choice, and people really want there to remain one.

When asked who they would like to see as a candidate in the presidential election, 38% answered “both”, 19% opted for Putin alone, and 12% for Medvedev alone. 18% answered “neither.” As if in response to these wishes, both Putin and Medvedev have in their own separate ways indicated that they will be taking part in the election.

At the same time, by no means the whole of Russian society is confident that they themselves will be choosing their President, so used they are to rulers choosing their own successors. Many Russians believe that Putin and Medvedev will come to an agreement as to which of them will be president. And for most it seems a safe bet that, whatever happens, Putin will end up as president in 2012.  In April his popularity rating stood at 71% and Medvedev’s significantly lower at 68%. 

If society doesn’t accept the result it announces, we could be in for a difficult time. After all, recent social upheavals in previously communist or non-capitalist countries were all to do with society — or of a part of society — protesting against the falsification (or alleged falsification) of election results.

But there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and lip: in the months between now and the 2012 elections anything could happen. We can’t rule out the possibility that the candidates will go into the election with equal chances as far as public support is concerned. Or, to put it another way, with equal popularity rating figures. 

If there is a warning to be made, it is that the electoral machinery is programmed to guarantee success for only one candidate. If society doesn’t accept the result it announces, we could be in for a difficult time. After all, recent social upheavals in previously communist or non-capitalist countries were all to do with society — or of a part of society — protesting against the falsification (or alleged falsification) of election results.

 

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