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Why Do People Vote for United Russia?

The electoral campaign for the Duma elections scheduled for December 4, 2011, kicked off without much fanfare. Both president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin let it be understood that this time the campaign WON'T be different. Changes introduced into the electoral legislation since Medvedev's election in 2008, despite some reassuring hints, made by him at Yaroslavl forum in 2009, were largely cosmetic. OK, parties which got 5-7 percent of the vote, will have the right to have ONE deputy in the Duma. OK, the registered losers (whose numbers continue to dwindle ­ Russia now has 7 registered political parties instead of 14 right before Medvedev's election) will even have a chance to address the parliament ­ ONCE IN FIVE YEARS FOR 10 MINUTES, as it was the case with this Duma. Does it change much?

It is not hard to predict the ironically-indignant reaction of Western media to this election. Of course, taking part in an interactive TV show, which the election of the US president turned into in the last 30 years, makes just such a great difference. The renowned Russian-American TV anchor Vladimir Pozner, who has a long experience in both the Russian and the American television, once bluntly reacted to the admiration of his audience for interactive TV. "I feel myself a co-author of modern television!" one of such viewers exclaimed. "You don't co-author anything. Don't deceive yourself," Pozner said grimly. Such a reaction from the usually soft-spoken Pozner, with his habitual priestly air of a sympathetic and understanding "holy father," was somewhat sobering. Not only Russia, the whole world has lost the appetite for democracy.

Why did this happen? Russia's presumed "backslide" on democracy is in fact not retrospective, but very modern. It is mostly connected with a very modern, initially American, preference for anything material over ­ I hope, you didn't you yet forget the words? ­ spiritual and intellectual. Just talk to the sociologists and ask them the question ­ why do people vote for United Russia.

"The motives of most of the voters are purely pragmatic. Since the United Russia is seen by many as the only political force that can make things happen, a lot of people vote for it since they hope to get the road mended, the local hospital to get a facelift, etc," explains Alexey Grazhdankin, deputy director of the sociological research think tank Levada Center. "It does not mean that they like the state's policies. They just think that if they vote for, say, Just Russia nothing will happen ­ that's all. And if they vote for the UR, something MAY happen."

According to public opinion polls, conducted by the Levada Center, voting patterns in fact do not reflect the whole variety of ideological preferences of Russians. The reason for that is the fact that most of Russians have little respect for the opposition parties, both registered and unregistered.

"Most of the people have an impression that there are two real parties in the country ­ United Russia and the Communist party of Russian Federation. The other parties ­ social-democratic, nationalist, liberal ­ are often seen as "unreal" ones. In the opinion of the majority of the polled, these parties are manipulated by the Kremlin, the West, oligarchs ­ you name it," Grazhdankin says.

Is it a sad situation? Both yes and no. On the one hand, for example, the current sad showing of the increasingly dissident Just Russia party (4 per cent) does not reflect the real attitude of Russians to moderately leftist opposition or to social democracy, for that matter. "In fact there may be a lot more Russians sharing social-democratic views, but they just don't believe that Just Russia is a real party, that it is not one more decoy created by political spin doctors," Grazhdankin says. On the other hand, mistrust towards small political parties deprives the political life in the country of any sort of alternative. Since the chances of a return of the communist party to power are actually nil, United Russia's majority remains unchallenged.

The Western interpretations of this situation are, as usual, simplified and stuck in the cold war clichés even more than during the cold war itself. Never in the twentieth century were the Western appraisals of Russian society so negative as today. The simple fact that people DO NOT BELIEVE parties positioning themselves as social-democratic or liberal is seen in Washington and Brussels as an indication that these ideologies have no support in Russian society.

"If Parnas [Party of People's Freedom, headed by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov] ran today, even with access to public television and other perks of an independent party, it would not get more than 1 percent," comments Alexander Oslon, the director of the Obshchestvennoye Mnenie (Public Opinion) research center. The problem is, people most often have reason to doubt the sincerity and the "reality" of opposition parties, Parnas included. I would add: I wouldn't vote for this party myself. Not because I don't believe in people's freedom and other democratic values. I am just NOT SURE these values are represented by former government officials Kasyanov and Nemtsov, thanks to whom, among others, Russia wasted its chance to become a democratic country during the 1990s. I am left indifferent or sometimes even insulted by their promises of "liberal reforms" which in translation to basic Russian means "more money for the rich."

The irony of this situation is that my (or anyone else's) refusal to give trust to avowedly pro-Western political formations, which are almost officially on the payroll of various "endowments for democracy," will be interpreted by Western press as "inner slavery" and "old mentality."

When will the situation change? When people start valuing their sense of human dignity and other spiritual things more than promises of an immediate construction of a new road or bridge (or church, for that matter). In small towns voting for a small party or abstaining from a vote is also a material risk ­ it is not hard for your superiors to figure out who "let them down" by voting in a wrong way. So, for democracy to prevail, the values of spiritual things must increase.

And where in the world do you see the spiritual values prevailing over material ones now? Advertising, which gives us every minute examples of people ready to subject themselves to any sort of humiliation (in fact, people embodying human manias for coffee, beer, chocolate, etc.) does not provide good role models for both young and old.

Last time when Russians preferred freedom to sausage inside the voting booths was in 1991. Will this situation repeat itself any time soon? Let us hope.


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