Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio, writing in the Moscow Times:
Russia saw more protests in the first three months of 2010 than it has seen over the past few years. A wave of demonstrations swept from one end of the country to the other. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, demonstrators for the first time made both economic and political demands, shouting “Down with the tariff increase!” and “Putin must go!”
The gap between the people and the government is widening further and further. The Kremlin not backing down at all from its power vertical model. If anything, it will only be strengthened. Nonetheless, a growing demand for change can still be heard from the liberal members of society.
In December, the sociological research company Bashkirova & Partners conducted a national survey titled “Democracy in Russia” with a representative sample of 2,000 people and a margin of error of two percentage points. The results painted a clear picture of Russia’s political orientation. The survey revealed that 9 percent of those polled have liberal political values, 18 percent are committed to Communist ideals and 31 percent are loyal supporters of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and United Russia. The remaining 42 percent of those questioned hold no firm political beliefs, are apolitical or are wavering in their convictions. Under the right circumstances, this large electoral reserve could shift the country’s political balance radically.
As before, people expressed their greatest confidence in traditional institutions: the president (82 percent), the prime minister (82 percent), the Russian Orthodox Church (69 percent) and the armed forces (62 percent). Individually, Putin received an 83 percent confidence rating and President Dmitry Medvedevreceived 80 percent. With 47 percent of respondents expressing their willingness to vote for United Russia, the party retains its monolithic status and enjoys more support than all other registered political parties combined.
By default, the Kremlin benefits greatly from the Russians’ passivity. Eighty-four percent of the population does not participate in the activities of a single civic organization such as a political party, association or nongovernmental organization, and 81 percent of respondents have not taken part in a single form of communication with the authorities or in efforts to protect their own interests. Only 5 percent of all Russians have joined protests and even fewer have addressed letters or appeals to the authorities. Despite what would appear to be an increase in protests during the first quarter of the year, most people remain unwilling to take part in protests. At the peak of the economic crisis in late 2009, only 23 percent of respondents were willing to attend a rally, and only 12 percent were ready to take part in a strike. This demonstrates how authorities and the people live in two completely different universes that rarely intersect each other.
Putin’s power vertical is built on a foundation made of sand. All that it takes for the structure to completely collapse is a few more convulsions — that is, a few more protests that are expected in the coming months.
Despite sky-high ratings for the ruling tandem, the people gave only a “C” grade for the effectiveness of the country’s political system, and 60 percent of those questioned expressed dissatisfaction with the development of democracy in Russia.
Russians hold deep reservations concerning the legitimacy of the current authorities. Only 38 percent of respondents believe that Russia’s leaders — including those at the top — are voted into office through free and fair elections, and fewer than half believe that the modern Russian state is democratic.
The survey results do not support the Kremlin’s course toward re-Sovietizing Russia, including the renewed heroization of Josef Stalin, television programs portraying Chekists as heroes and the manipulation and falsification of Russian and Soviet history. Only one-third of the Russian public holds a favorable opinion of “Father Stalin,” and it gives the same low rating on the Soviet regime that it gives to Putin’s regime.
Most Russians have a largely archaic and socialistic understanding of democracy. They see it not as a system of political competition, but as ensuring universal suffrage, election of the head of state, a social safety net and equality. At the same time, the people do have a long and clearly defined list of complaints to their leaders. At the top of the list are inflation, unemployment, a decline in manufacturing, low incomes and the high price of housing.
The liberal and democratic-leaning segment of society is even unhappier than the general population with the current situation and political course the country has taken. Not only does this segment constitute nearly 10 percent of the population, but it is also comprised of the most educated and progressive members of society — the very people who will serve as the incubator and locomotive for modernizing the country.
The main complaints liberals have against the authorities and their policies include the high social stratification of society, runaway corruption, the need to pay for services that are officially free and the special and privileged position that government officials occupy in society. They are also unhappy about the dominance of monopolies, the lack of free and fair elections, censorship of the media, the de facto one-party system and the abuses committed by Federal Security Service agents and the police. More than 70 percent of the liberal segment of the population holds a strong aversion to these key features of Putin’s “sovereign democracy.”
Today, the liberal members of society do not have a single deputy in parliament who can represent their interests and values. Liberal voters vote in large numbers in elections, but the authorities use various tricks and manipulations to make sure that liberal candidates are disqualified from running for office based on trumped-up technical violations, or in the few cases where they do run every administrative resource is used to make sure that they don’t cross the minimum threshold to win the election.
Under Putin’s vertical power structure, liberal-minded Russians have been suppressed and excluded from the political process, but this does not mean that they will remain silent. They will fight to have their voices heard and represented. They will continue to protest against government abuse and manipulation. Although liberals are still the minority in Russia, they are a very influential and talented segment of the population. They must be allowed to play their role in modernizing Russia and to help the country become more democratic, free and prosperous.