Political apathy spreads over Russia


Moscow. (Andrei Kolesnikov, RIA Novosti political commentator)

The average Russian is paying less and less attention to politics and delving deeper and deeper into his or her own personal, everyday problems. The reasons for this attitude are not only economic; this political apathy is caused by narrowing political choices due to changes made to election legislation (such as the abolition of the "against all" option) and the lack of an alternative, which has become the main attribute of current Russian politics.

Sociological research shows that due to the absence of a dominant ideology and people's de-politicization, Russians are willing to accept a one-party system and the political dominance of the ruling pro-Kremlin party, United Russia. This is not because United Russia is seen as extremely good, but because ordinary Russians no longer care who controls politics: They want to be left in peace to work for their own survival or, on the contrary, enrichment. Ordinary people do not see a direct connection between politics and their prosperity. Surveys by the Levada Center show that people are inclined to blame the government for all negative developments. At the same time, they view the government not as a political institution, but as an economic body that is unable to cope with people's chief concerns, i.e. inflation (the biggest concern, according to polls), poverty and corruption. As many as 66% worry about low incomes, while 70% of Russians fear a price hike. The government's two main tasks, polls indicate, should be to fight corruption and reduce prices.

Russians do not see a serious alternative to the incumbent president. According to the Levada Center, if Vladimir Putin decided to run for a third term, he would receive 48% of votes. As many as 40% are ready to vote for Putin's handpicked successor, while 55% are positive that this person will be from the president's inner circle. This may help to explain the steady growth of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's approval rating, which reached a new all-time high of 26% in July. Only 16% are willing to support alternative candidates, and this is the most vivid proof of people's political apathy and their unwillingness to influence political developments in the country even when its future is at stake.

One of the reasons is their conservative expectations. Most of them do not think that the situation in the country or their personal situation will change for the better or for the worse in the near term. Their assessment of the present situation is philosophically neutral: 25% said it was not all that bad for them, while 51% said life was hard, but bearable.

The ability to adjust to current circumstances with realistic expectations and focus on personal problems is projected onto politics. Fewer people now believe that the incumbent president will make a great improvement in their lives in the near future: their share has fallen from 43% in 2001 to 32%. Instead, the number of those who do not see any alternative to Putin has grown from 34% to 38%. In July 2006, the president's approval rating surged as high as 79%, with only 19% of people disapproving of him.

Still, this apathy and de-politicization cannot last long. With all the relative predictability of the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2007 and 2008, respectively - and it is this predictability that causes apathy - Russians' future political preferences are unclear. For lack of clear ideological priorities and goals that unite the nation, populist doctrines and nationalist parties have a fairly good chance of succeeding. So far, complete apathy has played a paradoxically positive role, toning down the most radical and quasi-fascist sentiments. Yet this phenomenon has another side: the nationalist minority can become a majority because of most people's absolute indifference to what is going on in politics.

For people to vote consciously and with interest, they need incentives. Perhaps, an adequate solution would be to democratize election legislation in the next political cycle. The first step could be to lower the 7% threshold in the parliamentary election. This measure could lead to a fledgling multi-party system appearing in Russia. Then even apathetic voters would suddenly be interested in the choices on offer.

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