“The party of power gained the result it needed by discrediting political institutions and the very party itself…the elections turned into a mockery of the people and showed a deep disrespect for their voices”.
This is how Mikhail Gorbachev, once a qualified supporter of Putin, summed up the results of the recent regional elections in Russia, in which the incumbent party just happened to have “won about 80 percent of all contested positions in some 7,000 districts around the country”.
Yet despite the state controlled media, it’s not like the population is ignorant of the blatant fraud: a recent survey found that only 3% of Russians believe the elections to have been free and fair.
And they certainly harbour no illusions, either: a respected Levada Centre poll found just 4% who believe that Russia is a democracy.
Yet while some opposition leaders, such as the Communists and the centre-right Yabloko party (which amazingly received 0 votes in a district in which their own candidate Mitrokhin had definitely cast one) were furious, most ordinary Russians might have actually cheered.
That’s right: although 95% of Russians polled by Levada believe that they have no control over their political destinies, a whopping ‘26% believed that democratic governing was not suitable for Russia’.
In fact, when asked whether they a) either completely believe or just tend to think that democracy is needed or b) completely believe or just tend to think that democracy is wrong for Russia, the proportion narrows to just 50:31.
Moreover, “the majority (60%) also said it would be better for Russia if the president controlled both the courts and the parliament…and nearly 25% said the Soviet Union had a better political system that the current Russian model (36%) or that in Western countries (15%)”.
The following Levada Centre graph illustrates the Russian approval of three political systems: the Soviet one, the current one, or Western style democracy (the fourth line, in green, is marked ‘other’).
Contrary to almost all Western political science thinking, the most popular system from 1996 to 2007 was the Soviet one (blue), consistently winning the approval of 40-45% of the very people who were supposed to have rejected it in 1991, and twice as popular as the Western style democracy (red) they were meant to have favoured.
But the most interesting journey is marked by the yellow line indicating “the current system”. Under Yeltsin’s supposed golden age of democracy and freedom, this yellow line never rose beyond 10%. But as soon as Putin came in, in 1999, it has shown a steady rise. In 2007, it finally beat the front runner, the Soviet system, and continues to grow.
Most importantly, for the first time since the fall of the USSR, an overwhelming plurality of Russian citizens prefer their current system to either an idealised Soviet past or an increasingly demonised ‘Western alternative’.
In fact, this picture of contentment seems to demolish the liberal idea of Russians cowering under an increasingly authoritarian regime, just waiting to be rescued back to democracy.
Other polls show that Russians aren’t particularly impressed with the government’s handling of the financial crisis; nor do they support Putin’s increasingly overblown vendetta against Khodorkovsky (59% think the trial is designed to line the pockets of those benefitting from Yukos’s collapse, and 75% oppose keeping him in prison for life).
So, is there just some sort of weird masochism at play in the Russian soul?
But if so, then why should Putin falsify elections that he could have expected to win anyway?
That is the central question. Why on earth did the Kremlin bother to delete Mitrokhin’s vote for a party, Yabloko, whose popularity had never risen above the low single digits even in free elections? What’s the point?
Similarly, much has been said about the ‘rehabilitation’ of Stalin. And yet, authorities have been cracking down on organisations and academics that have been researching the gulag and the deportation of Germans – measures that I can bet actually increase Stalin’s popularity in the eyes of his current fans, so why hush them up (especially in the internet age)?.
What is the Kremlin’s game? Seriously, I’m Russian, but I have no idea what is going on.