Sociologist: Most Russians Don′t Know What Democracy Is | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.12.2007
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Sociologist: Most Russians Don't Know What Democracy Is

Why can there be virtually no surprises in the upcoming Russian elections? DW-WORLD.DE spoke to Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov about voters, their relationship to the state and their views of the political system.

A woman walking in Moscow's snow-covered red square

Have Russians simply not had a chance so far to warm up to democracy?

DW-WORLD.DE: How would you characterize the Russian voters' mood ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections?

Lev Gudkov: I'd point out that people have become increasingly content with their lives over the past year and a half. We're noticing for the first time that the general mood is positive: people are more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives. For 15 years -- after 1991 -- the mood was decidedly negative: people believed that the country was not developing in the right direction, that their opinions and interests were not considered, that their income was falling.

All that, of course, is not equally distributed among different groups. Only 15 to 20 percent of people have actually benefited from all the changes, but the bulk of the people feel that they're living like before. For the first time after the crisis of 1998, however, people have calmed down and they are not expecting any commotion in the near future. This leads not so much to confidence and optimism as to the weakening of their feeling that something negative could happen. We're dealing here not so much with the formula: "Look how well off we are," but rather with the principle: "Thank God, nothing bad is going on."

Is that the reason why the Russian president and his party are so popular?

Lev Gudkov

Lev Gudkov thinks that most Russians are satisfied with the system

Partly. A large portion of people continue living with a Soviet mindset. They expect to get help, employment, social services and other things from the state. In that sense, they are dependent on the government. And their level of satisfaction with the government is based on whether or not the government fulfills these expectations.

People, especially in the villages, although in cities, too, feel that they can't get through without state help -- without free medical and social services etc. Putting aside the fact that voters are pressured, the opposition is getting squeezed out and the mass media are not free i.e. all those "gems" of managed democracy, people put their hopes in the party in power because it at lest can accomplish something. And that's also why they put their hopes in the president.

So what are voters thinking nowadays?

Strictly speaking, the situation is stable and will not essentially change until after the elections. Although slight surprises and mood swings are always possible. Fifty-three percent of the population is planning to take part in the elections, which means that 47 percent will not participate for political reasons.

Specifically, what reasons?

A woman votes in a Russian election

A large number of Russians will not be heading to the polls

They don't think that their voices can change anything. Most of them believe that the election results can be rigged, many are tired of politics and don't trust the politicians. Only 5 percent of voters are abstaining from voting because they "don't understand much about politics." Basically, abstentions are fully motivated: Those who are not finding a party that would represent their interests would rather abstain from voting than vote for anybody.

How would you estimate party ratings?

Approximately 59 percent of votes will go to [President Putin's] "One Russia," 18 percent will go to the communists, 9 percent to [moderate pro-Kremlin] "Just Russia" and some 7 percent, i.e. around the minimum required to enter the parliament, will go to [right-winger] Zhirinovsky's party.

None of the opposition democratic parties stand a chance?

Unfortunately, none of them. The [liberal] Yabloko party is getting less than 3 percent and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) is in the 1 to 2 percent range.

So if all the opposition democratic parties got together, they would still not pass the 7-percent barrier?

Yes, the so-called democrats would not pass the minimum barrier.

Are you expecting any surprises from the parliamentary elections?

Yabloko supporters during a demonstration

Yabloko supporters won't make it to parliament

I don't expect any special surprises. What kind of surprises could we expect when the media are so tightly controlled when it comes to political advertising and propaganda? It is possible that Zhirinovksy's ratings will go up in the last days before the elections -- it has happened before, but only if no pressure is exerted on him. In principle, in the current situation -- in a managed democracy -- he is not necessary. To a certain extend, he's even discrediting the Kremlin.

Will the state parliament (Duma) be controlled by the Kremlin again?

The Duma will have an absolute majority of pro-Kremlin parties, which will make it completely steerable and in that sense dependent on the executive branch, obedient and ineffective.

What do the majority of Russians think about the developments of the Russian political system?

Czar Putin (center) in a parody of a famous painting by Ilya Repin

"Czar Putin" (center) in a parody of a famous painting by Ilya Repin

People don't have a good idea of what a democracy is: They never lived in one. At the same time, the populist conservative demagogy propelled by the communists in the 1990s and later by the ruling party lead to the discrediting of the very principles of democracy and democratic models.

Depending on their level of education and how well-informed they are, people understand the meaning of democracy as the right to criticize the authorities, the freedom to leave the country etc., or things like chaos, dissolution, empty promises, demagogy. People don't understand and don't know that democracy is a system based on the separation of powers and free competition of political parties. Only 10-12 percent of Russians are truly familiar with democratic principles.

Are Russians becoming more aware of the need to develop civil society?

No. Russian society remains very conservative with elements of feudal-state consciousness. It is oriented towards the authorities, it is used to their caprices, it expects their patronage and entrusts its own will to those in power.

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