The Mismatch

The ongoing parliamentary election campaign in Russia reminds me of an electric fireplace. Everything seems to be there: firewood, flames, and heat. But there is no fire. Likewise, the Duma campaign – now in its final stretch – has all the attributes of a real political happening. The streets of Russian cities are decorated with election paraphernalia. TV and radio debates are in full swing — and, in contrast to previous campaigns, even the United Russia party is participating. Complaints of election law violations – the perennial feature of every Russian election – keep mounting. But there is no fire.

The announcement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is returning to the presidency next spring has deprived the current electoral cycle of its major intrigue and has brought a sense of finality in the mindset of the country’s elites. An unintended – however, hardly unanticipated – result of this development has been a precipitous drop in public interest in the next composition of the State Duma, a government body that many Russians consider a rubberstamp to the all-powerful executive. (A recent Vedomosti editorial called the Duma a “Ministry of Approvals.”)

Interestingly, this lack of enthusiasm peacefully coexists with a growing sense that the election results may not be “as usual.” The long-predicted decline in public support for the ruling United Russia party is finally taking place, and even the top party officials have grudgingly accepted the fact that United Russia is not likely to repeat its 2007 success – a constitutional majority in the Duma.

Given United Russia’s obvious vulnerability, one would expect that its major opponents – the communists (KPRF) and the liberal democrats (LDPR) – will intensify their attacks on their bleeding rival. This hasn’t happened. It would appear that both KPRF and LDPR are intentionally conducting low-key election campaigns, giving United Russia a chance to lose a “referendum” with the Russian voters. Messrs. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky believe – and not without reason – that any United Russia loss will be their win in terms of additional Duma seats.

True, United Russia still possesses enough of the notorious “administrative resource” to buttress its election numbers. The problem is that this may backfire. A recent report by the Center of Strategic Development has concluded that should United Russia receive 60-70 percent of the vote – a target that many believe the Kremlin has set for the party – the majority of Russians will consider the result as evidence of election fraud, not of the party’s high popularity with voters. The report goes as far as to claim that no more than 25-30 percent of the vote collected by United Russia will be accepted by the voters as a legitimate outcome.

This clear lack of trust in the legitimacy of the election process seems to be only part of a general trend: a growing sense of alienation of ordinary citizens from the country’s powers-that-be. A Levada Center poll released on Nov. 17 indicates that 68 percent of Russians (a 6 percent increase since 2007) believe that the “authorities” pursue interests that are different from those of the society at large. 85 percent of the respondents (an 8 percent increase since 2008) think that the majority of government officials systematically violate state laws. The same percentage of responders is also convinced that when engaged in political activities, Russian politicians follow only their personal financial interests.

However troubling the Levada findings might be, they do provide a glimpse of hope for the future of Russia’s democratic institutions. For example, although a whopping 82 percent of Russians believe that they can’t influence political processes in the country, 14 percent feel they can – a 6 percent increase since 2008. A third of responders also say that they are ready to participate in political actions, even if at the local level. However timid, these indications of the growing maturity of the Russian civil society seem to reflect the emergence of the middle class willing to take more responsibility for the situation in the country.

And this may pose serious systemic risks for the Kremlin. Public polls not only show the declining popularity of the current leaders; they reveal growing demand for a rotation in the upper echelons of power, a demand that the current “power vertical” – totally averse to real political competition – is unable to match. Besides, a recent study conducted by sociologists at the Moscow State University points to rapidly diminishing public appeal for “stability” so characteristic for the past ten years. The study suggests that as the first post-Soviet generation of young educated entrepreneurs comes of age, the prevailing sentiment is shifting from “stability” to “active development” mode.

By promising 12 years of more “stability,” Putin might be offering his compatriots a product that is not already in high demand. Like an electric fireplace in the middle of a hot summer.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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18 Responses to The Mismatch

  1. I think we should be careful in reading too much into some of the atmospherics that parts of the media are reporting. The latest opinion poll from Levada showed Putin’s popularity at 67% and Medvedev’s at 61%. United Russia is obviously polling less well but as of the present time I do not see real evidence of a collapse in its support. In 2007 its vote was boosted because Putin decided to lead its election campaign. 2007 was an unusual year because Putin was giving up the Presidency so there was a need to boost the share of the vote of the ruling party in order to insulate the political system from any threat of instability whilst the transition was underway. The result was that during the election campaign all the stops were pulled out inflating the ruling party’s support and enabling United Russia to win its so called constitutional majority. That political imperative simply does not exist this year. The result is that the election has been altogether more low key. this year and whilst there will no doubt be some slippage in the ruling party’s vote I have no doubt that it will win another big majority.

    As to whether the population will accept the result, the short answer is that it will if the result is true. In 2009 the opposition in Iran and the western media convinced themselves that the Presidential election was too close to call even though opinion polls pointed clearly to an Ahmadinejad landslide. When the election duly produced the Ahmadinejad landslide the opposition and the western media cried foul and brought the crowds onto the streets. In the end this attempt to overturn the results failed not because of police repression as has been claimed but because Ahmadinejad undoubtedly did win a landslide so that opposition claims in the end lacked credibility and failled to gain traction.

    Russia is a very different country from Iran and I do not expect there to be anything like the sort of violence that happened in Iran in 2009. However if the election result is honest then I am sure the Russian people will accept it whether the opposition and the western media do or not.

  2. Dear Alexander,

    Thank you for your comment. I totally agree with you that Russian people will accept any honest result. I also agree with you that both Putin and Medvedev — and United Russia — are still genuinely popular and don’t really need any electoral manipulations.

    My major point is however different. Putin hasn’t offered any real strategic program for his next presidency — except for promises of 12 years of more stability. Russia doesn’t need more “stability;” what it needs is “agility,” “flexibility” — you name it — to adequately respond to the challenges of today (not yesterday). “Stability” as Putin means it equals to the preservation of status quo. I think that the demand for this type of leadership is diminishing in Russia. The very fact that Medvedev — not a “strong leader” in the Russian understanding of this term — is still popular means that there is demand for change. I’m not sure that Putin got it.


  3. rkka says:

    “Russia doesn’t need more “stability;” what it needs is “agility,” “flexibility” — you name it — to adequately respond to the challenges of today (not yesterday). ”

    Oh, I don’t know. Once the Euro crack-up happens and the world spirals into the gaping maw of another global financial collapse, “stability” may be looking pretty good.

    • Are you saying that Putin knows better than Medvedev — or any other person in Russia, for that matter — how to deal with “another global financial collapse?” Was it not incidentally Medvedev who dealt — more or less successfully, as a consensus goes — with the previous one? Besides, isn’t Russia anymore “an island of stability” it used to be (according to Putin) just a few years ago?

      • rkka says:

        The reason Medvedev was able to deal with the 2008 GFC were the reserves Putin carefully husbanded through the fat years. Because of them, Medvedev was able to do the Keynesian thing as Lord Keynes intended, out of savings instead of by borrowing.

        This time around, Russian banks are net creditors, and the Oligarchs are less leveraged than they were in 2008.

        This will help.

  4. Dear Eugene,

    You have made many good and interesting points and I think you are on to something. However I hope you won’t mind if I respond to some of the points you are making:

    1. It is certainly true that the mood in Russia is changing. In 2007 the country was just 9 years away from a catastrophic crisis that had come following a decade of disaster. The mood was one of intense euphoria and relief, which in the circumstances is hardly surprising. Today things are more “normal”. For example I would interpret some of the polling data to which you refer as simply evidence of the return of some of the healthy cynicism itowards political leaders one tends to find in all functioning and mature societies. Provided it is not taken too far (which the polling data suggests in Russia it is not) it is a definite indicator of progress and is a good sign for the future. As a very general rule I would say that it is enthusiasm including expressions of “trust” and even “love” for political leaders, which is dangerous and which one should be wary of.

    2. Having said this, I do think stability is important and I strongly suspect that most people in Russia think the same. The 1990s are after all not so far away and besides (and here I think there is a difference between us) I think the country does need a period of stability for the massive changes that happened post 1985 to bed themselves in. I absolutely do not agree with the view that stability now threatens chaos in the future. On the contrary (and here I am afraid I agree with Putin) political experiments now that threatened stability would be disastrous given their ability to endanger economic growth, which is vital for the country’s stability in the future.

    3. As you will probably realise I tend to take a positive view of the situation today. I think talk of change and reform makes the mistake of thinking that there are quick fixes to problems that are deep seated and complex. For example everyone talks about the importance for Russia to raise industrial productivity, to diversify its economy and to defeat corruption. The point is that these things take time and the way to achieve them is not by dramatic changes and announcements that are a recipe for trouble and disappointment if things go wrong but through hard and unremitting work, which pays dividends over time. Obviously this does require tactical flexibility and pragmatism but the successful management of the 2008 crisis shows that the present government has this. Putin and those around him (including Medvedev) I think understand these points very well and so I think do most of the country’s economic leaders and (though obviously not expressing it in the way I do) so does most of the population.

    4. In the longer run though I do think you have as I said a point. To my mind the big criticism of Putin is that his approach to politics is managerial and that he functions inside an ideological void. I should make it clear that by “managerial” I do not mean “anti democratic”. However if Putin does have an overarching political philosophy then I for one do not know what it is. Even he for example does not seem able to decide whether he is politically on the left or on the right.

    5. I suspect that many Russians reading this blog will say that this is an advantage and that the country has suffered from a surfeit of ideology and that Putin’s refusal or inability to articulate a political philosophy is a positive advantage. That may be true for the moment but I suspect that over time it will become a problem as Russians begin to start asking where their country is heading and what sort of society they want it to be. I suspect that glimmers of this are starting to appear already and are again reflected in the polling data mentioned in your post.

    Apologiies for the length of this comment.

    • Dear Alexander,

      Thanks much for your follow-up. No need for apology: no blogger would be offended by a long comment to their post:) Now, let me briefly respond to your points:

      1. I agree with you that things are becoming more “normal” in Russia, politically-wise. For this very reason, I see no need to invoke a spectrum of a new “catastrophe” in order to justify ushering a new era of “stability.” Russia is stable enough for “normal” development.

      Yes, being cynical about politicians is healthy, but feeling powerless against the authorities is not, IMHO.

      2. As I just responded to Mark, I feel that I need to write a follow-up post explaining my understanding of “stability.” Let’s continue this discussion later this week.

      3. I’m totally with you on this and defended President Medvedev in the recent past from
      the criticism that things aren’t moving fast enough ( Yes, I considered Medvedev’s first term as a beginning, however slow, of these structural reforms that you’re talking about. And yet, he was deprived of the second term. Why? Do you think that now, with Putin at the helm, the reforms will accelerate? Nothing from what Putin has said recently suggests that.

      4. Yes, I agree that Putin is excellent “manager,” but poor “ideologist” — and this is “by design.” Besides, I suspect that Putin has a deep disdain for any ideology — a thing that is in fact quite typical among Russian elites these days. As for him being “democratic” or “anti-democratic,” this is a long conversation. My take of him is that he only understands the value of strong executive and sees no particular need for other forms of government. Consider his latest description of an “ideal” parliament: the body that makes “right” decisions at the “right” time. Given that in Russia, it’s usually the executive that decides what is “right”…

      5. Again, I agree with you here and I’d only add that even Putin seems to begin feeling
      a need to articulate “grand ideas.” Otherwise, it’d be difficult to understand the timing of his Eurasian Union idea.


  5. marknesop says:

    Well, whenever voters begin to think stability is not enough, and perhaps miracles would suit better, there’s nothing like a term of absolutely disastrous government to teach them a lesson they won’t forget for a couple of cycles. Yeltsin’s privatization follies nearly destroyed the country for all but a few lucky beneficiaries, but perhaps the people are growing so fat and lazy that the lesson has been forgotten.

    Personally, I don’t think the Russian voters are really as superficial and what-have-you-done-for-me-LATELY as they’re being portrayed, and I read on Mark Adomanis’s blog that according to the latest Levada poll (which I haven’t personally seen), Putin’s personal popularity is back to its former 67% or so. The ramifications of the American refusal to put in writing that their interceptor systems are not targeted against Russia (while loonies like Senator DeMint shout that yes, it is) will coalesce into a certainty that Russia has a lot of enemies, and needs a strong leader. That, in turn, will likely result in the Republicans braying that they are the party of National Security and only they can protect America in a new Cold War, and may lose Obama the election.

    But if none of that happens and the Russian complainers turn out to be other than the tiny minority relentlessly amplified by the western media I believe they are, then perhaps a term with a Communist government (who would set the economic clock back so badly it would take 10 years to fix it) or a coalition of progressive liberals (after which there wouldn’t be a state industry left, including in the energy sector) would be just the thing to show them the error of their ways.

    The thing is, I don’t believe the country would survive it. There are some mistakes from which you don’t get to recover.

    • Thanks Mark,

      I feel I need to write a follow-up post explaining what I mean by “stability.” However, I can say now that I don’t consider miracles, disastrous governments (including those formed by the communists) as opposite to “stability.” Nor do I consider it equivalent to having a “strong leader.” Nor do I see how a “strong leader” would force the Americans to sign a binding “not-targeted-against-you” PRO pledge.

      As for Putin’s popularity, take a look at the Levada’s poll you mentioned:

      Putin’s positive/negative ratio was the highest (80/19) in May 2010 and kept decreasing since then; it was 67/32 this November.


      • marknesop says:

        Hello, Zhenya; it is I who should clarify. I never meant any Russian leader could have forced the USA to sign a binding statement that the network of interceptors surrounding Russia would not be used against Russia. Nobody could do that, because the USA wishes to preserve its options, and many analysts suggest the system gives the USA back its “first strike” capability (which recent disclosures of postwar interviews with Soviet figures suggest the Soviet Union was terrified of), as the interceptors would be adequate to take out the remaining handful of Russian missiles that were not destroyed in their silos.

        No, I meant that last week’s turning away from what might well be all further rapprochement on the missile issue as well as threatening all other western/Russia arms control agreements will bring home to Russians that now is not the time to take a flyer on a western-oriented liberal reformer, since the west has never really stopped being the adversary in some ways, and is always angling for dominance – it will never accept other than a subordinate role from Russia, and powerful elements within the USA’s lawmaking and policymaking bodies have never stopped seeing Russia as the enemy. In such circumstances, the instinct should be to turn to proven leadership, and stability might appear a goal not to be despised. I personally think that given the climate of economic apprehension everywhere else, stability should look like a Godsend.

        I had read on Mark’s blog that Putin’s popularity was “back up” to 67%, which led me to believe it had been lower. To me, 67% is excellent, and nobody else has anything close despite the western narrative that Putin being booed signified Russian’s turning their backs on him with such finality that he might as well resign right now.

        • Hi Mark,

          We know each other long enough to be familiar with our respective positions, so I perfectly understand and respect your points.

          No doubt about that: the PRO is very serious threat to Russia’s security — yet not imminent, nor immediate. I just don’t see how this issue could be taken — today! — as a justification for eturning to a bunker mentality of sorts that Russia was so often prone to in the past.

          As for a danger of Russia being run by a western-oriented liberal reformer…There are simply no such people in the top echelons of power in Russia right now. Still, the very same perennial question stands: who is going to fight corruption, which in my view has finally become the problem number one?

          And I promise: I won’t rest until I have a good answer to another question: why was Medvedev not allowed to run for the second term?


          • marknesop says:

            Ah! I’m afraid that’s one I can’t answer, as I was quite wrong about Medvedev before when I said he had essentially accomplished nothing. That was substantially inaccurate, although I maintain he was too soft, and without the threat of Putin behind him I believe many of his efforts at reform would have met with stiff resistance, or merely indifference. I can’t understand the passion for constant – and often expensive – reform when all the countries around Russia have reformed themselves right into bankruptcy. It just seems to me to be change for the sake of changing, as if merely be reaching a state that is different will make things better. Maybe people don’t want so much change.

            Except for corruption, of course, which is a big problem, and should be a target for reform. However, people must realize that subtracting the shadow economy of bribery overnight will be expensive; it means people who once relied on bribes will have to be paid a higher living wage. A surge in wages will cost; remember when Tymoshenko arbitrarily raised all public servants’ wages by something like 52%? The economy of Ukraine couldn’t begin to afford it. The economy is a delicate balancing act, and although it should be as simple as giving everyone more money, of course it isn’t and there are plenty of unintended consequences. That’s no excuse for not tackling corruption – just as long as people realize it will have far-reaching consequences and are prepared for them.

            Comes to that, why would someone else (besides Medvedev) be better at tackling corruption than Putin? It would be an enormous national effort, and whoever spearheads it will have to have the people with him. Who’s got more of the people with him than Putin? Dissidents grumble that Putin is too slow, or altogether uninterested, in reform. But there are no guarantees someone more idealistic but with less public support could pull it off.

            • Mark,

              In a long list of posts I want to publish, the one on why Medvedev wasn’t allowed to run for another term goes the second — right after my “clarification on stability.” And, I suspect, we’ll have a discussion…

              As to the Putin vs. corruption issue, my answer is simple: corruption spreads from the top of the system that Putin has built. To fight corruption, he must start from the very top, from his “friends.” I just don’t see him capable of doing this.


  6. @rkka,

    Exactly! So, what kind of political and/or economic troubles — “instabilities,” so to speak — do you recognize in Russia that would warrant the drive to “stability” instead of “modernization?” (all terms being by default relative, of course).

    In other words, again, what will Putin do better than Medvedev?


  7. Dear Eugene,

    Thank you for an excellent response. This time I will keep my response shorter.

    1. Strangely enough I do think that the changes initiated during Medvedev’s Presidency will continue and may even accelerate. Though there is a difference in temperament and personality between the two men I do not think that there is the great difference on policy between Putin and Medvedev that many see. It was Putin after all who proposed Medvedev for the Presidency and it was Putin again who made Medvedev head of the United Russia campaign and who has said he will nominate him Prime Minister. A point many overlook by the way is that Medvedev will be a far more powerful Prime Minister than any other Prime Minister that Putin has previously appointed. Whether Putin likes the idea or not he and Medvedev now visibly constitute a tandem. If Putin were simply to dismiss Medvedev or if Medvedev were to resign because of differences over policy the tandem would be seen to have collapsed and this would precipitate a political crisis or at the very least a blow to Putin’s prestige, which is the very last thing Putin wants. This means that Medvedev once Prime Minister will have far more political space than is widely understood. Whether he uses it effectively is another matter.

    2. By the way I thought your earlier post on the judicial system outstanding. You may be interested to know that a couple of weeks ago the President of the European Court of Human Rights made essentially the same points as you. He said that far too many Russian citizens take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights without realising that the European Court of Human Rights cannot consider their cases unless they first apply to Russian courts. The President went on to say that in his experience (and he is the best person to judge) the standard of Russian courts is higher than is widely understood and that the problem is one of trust rather than competence. The President also said that the standard of Russia’s two highest courts, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, is very high and meets world standards.

    3. I know of these comments because until a few years ago I was a lawyer myself and I have had cases in the European Court of Human Rights. Outside the legal world these comments have been almost totally ignored and though I have done a quick internet search I cannot find them

    • Dear Alexander,

      Thanks much for the ECHR story: makes perfect sense to me.

      As to your first point…Let’s wait and see. What you say is very logic and reasonable, yet every fact you mention can be given an alternative interpretation. I think that the decision to replace Medvedev with Putin as president was made in a haste and without thinking over all the consequences and next steps. So in many cases the two actors simply improvise, making things up as they go. The only thing that is guiding them is the impossibility to shatter the image of the united tandem — especially during the election season. With both elections over — and the next election cycle 5-6 years away — Putin may well change his mind on EVERYTHING.

      The only point I’d like to add is that there is a difference between Putin and Medvedev
      that I personally find mportant: Medvedev believes (or at least he sounded this way a few months ago) that any modernization of Russia must include political reform. In contrast, Putin said many times over that he likes the current political system.


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