Russians go to vote, but not because they like politicians


When Russian leader Vladimir Putin climbed into the martial arts ring in the Olimpiysky Palace in downtown Moscow recently to congratulate a Russian wrestler who had quite convincingly beaten his American opponent, he was greeted by an unfamiliar sound.

The crowd, which, given the high ticket price, consisted mostly of wealthy and middle-class Russians, booed, with some shouting, “Go away!”

The prime minister’s press service later hurried to explain that it was a misunderstanding and that the audience last month was booing not Putin but American fighter Jeff Monson, who was being led away from the hall at the same time.


“The booing was obviously aimed at Monson,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman. “It is absurd to speak about some message sent to Putin!”

In October, President Dmitry Medvedev, who is leading Putin’s United Russia party into parliamentary elections Sunday, suffered a similar public relations scramble after a visit to the Journalism Department at Moscow State University.

When his security detail prevented many students from meeting with the president, department members said they organized a subbotnik, the Soviet-era term for a (compulsory) volunteer day, during which they thoroughly washed the auditorium to eradicate the traces of Medvedev’s visit.

Afterward, the presidential press service took pains to say that Medvedev had just rented an auditorium from the university to meet with young people, and not with the students themselves.

The tandem leaders may find comfort in the knowledge that voters are increasingly fed up with other politicians too, with apathy and frustration widespread.

Last month, the independent Levada Center polling organization reported that Putin’s and Medvedev’s popularity ratings had slipped to 67% and 62%, respectively, the lowest showing in years for both. (Just a year ago, Putin’s and Medvedev’s approval ratings were 79% and 75%, respectively.)

Only 53% of respondents said they intended to vote for United Russia in Sunday’s election, raising the specter that it will lose its two-thirds majority in the parliament’s lower house, the State Duma.

If the polls are borne out and United Russia drops from its current 315 seats to a projected 253 in the 450-seat house, the party would still have a majority but an insufficient one to adopt some laws and introduce constitutional changes.

On the eve of the 2007 parliamentary elections, by contrast, United Russia enjoyed the support of 69% of the public, a telling 16-percentage-point difference.

But opposition movements aren’t faring any better. The only truly liberal opposition force on the ballot, the Yabloko party, gets a mere 1% and will certainly not reach the 7% needed to enter parliament, according to the same poll.

A liberal opposition protest against United Russia’s monopoly on power last weekend in downtown Moscow attracted a ridiculously low number -- a few hundred people -- a parody of protests of the early 1990s when hundreds of thousands used to come out to demand the end of communism.

“People are just tired of the same faces on all sides of the political spectrum of the country, of the same propaganda and the same promises that no longer mean anything to them,” said Boris Dubin, senior researcher with Levada. “About 60% of the population believes that Russia needs a change, but they just lack direction and they don’t see a force that can outline a convincing plan aimed to take the country on a road of real reforms.”

Back in the early 1980s, in the stagnant era of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, people also were apathetic, but they “at least didn’t know such a thing as crushed hopes,” the pollster said. “Today they don’t see anything good for them in the future and many of them suffer from the syndrome of crushed hopes.”

Polls indicate that 41% of Russians believe the country is moving in the wrong direction and that 53% think that the coming elections won’t change their lives for the better.

In a party congress address last month that was met by the cheers of thousands of supporters and party officials who had packed Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Putin indicated that the Kremlin was aware of the change in mood in the country.

“What I am about to say is unlikely to please the ruling elite,” Putin said, but “when the ordinary person in his daily life encounters material, financial and other problems -- bribery, disrespect, humiliation -- all this irritation builds up and is directed against the ruling party, against the authorities in general.”

In the future, Putin, who is United Russia’s candidate for March presidential elections, and his party will face more apathy and irritation, predicted Lilia Shevtsova, senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

“People are increasingly growing sick and tired of the Kremlin leaders and their fake threats and empty promises, and this tendency appears to be impossible to break,” Shevtsova said.

In a sign of the growing apathy, a series of prime-time political debates in recent weeks drew small audiences as people preferred to turn to other channels.

They were missing a lot of peculiar mudslinging. In one fiery debate last week, the leader of one party on the ballot screamed at the top of his voice at a lawmaker representing the ruling party: “You are a party of swindlers and thieves!”

As if acknowledging the slur, the United Russia lawmaker screamed back: “It is better to be in the party of swindlers and thieves than in the party of murderers and rapists!”