There is no alternative to United Russia
An interview with Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Analytical Centre. Interviewer: Kacper Dziekan.
KACPER DZIEKAN: First of all, I would like to ask you about the election results. United Russia won 54 per cent of the vote, which is an even better result than the previous election when the party received less than 50 per cent. Other parties also achieved good results but none of the opposition parties managed to enter the parliament. Yabloko received less than the 3 per cent necessary to qualify for financial support. Do you consider such results to be truly representative? Is it possible that there was falsification involved, especially taking into consideration that deputies from independent parties did not participate?
LEV GUDKOV: There probably were some falsifications and this is something that we are trying to investigate. Straight after the elections we conducted a poll, in which we asked people who they voted for and then we were able to compare the information gathered from this survey with the outcome of the election. Obviously, the difference between these figures can help us to estimate the potential for falsification. But, overall, there was nothing unexpected in the election. That was our guess from the start and all the data indicated exactly that. The summer saw diminishing support for United Russia, although during the two weeks prior to the election there was an increase from around 31 to 36 per cent. With the low turnout this would guarantee them the same 53-55 per cent. So in this regard everything is very clear. None of the opposition parties were supposed to gain more than one per cent. Yabloko, for example, was expected to win around 1.5 per cent.
There were a lot of preparations before the election specifically to avoid any scandal regarding falsification. These preparations included; first of all the amendment of the legislation, which on the one hand enabled the participation of single-mandate deputies and on the other changed voting districts to ensure a mix of town and village populations. Secondly, the control of the election was tightened. This involved the restriction in the number of observers, prohibiting observers to move from one site to another, introducing the requirement for journalists to complete registration in advance, etc. Thirdly, and most importantly, was the high rise in screening of unwanted candidates. In 2007, 3 per cent of the candidates were subject to such a screening. In 2011 this rose to approximately 10-12 per cent and now it is at 38-39 per cent. This change happened in part due to the participation of single-mandate candidates, who are the easiest to eliminate, but also due to the refusal of opposition politicians to register. That is why there was no major competition in these elections. Furthermore, there was a significant increase in the number of the parties and party-spoilers also attracted a lot of votes. Therefore, we cannot say that the results were unexpected. Makarkin was absolutely right when he said that there would be a smaller amount of business representation, more regional administration and, therefore, that the Duma would be less scandalous and more controllable. The fact that United Russia have received an absolute constitutional majority really gives them a free hand. Now they can make any amendment to the constitution, although they had introduced amendments in the without any reservations.
Alexei Makarkin said that there was no alternative for United Russia, that the media did not show anything new. Do you agree with this statement?
Yes, of course. There is nothing like that and cannot be, because they [the media] have exhausted all their ideological resources — the only thing they have left is the appeal to the myth of the past: to traditional symbols, to imperial heritage (legacy), to a kind of heroic-military compound which they exploit quite frequently and it seems to be working well.
Coming back to the topic of falsifications. During the election in Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov received almost 98 per cent of the votes and the turnout was 95 per cent.
Well, of course. It would be hard to call it an election or even falsification, for that matter. This is simply an acclamation. Chechnya is a special region. Around five years ago we were conducting an investigation in Northern Caucasus and the situation in Chechnya was so different from other regions that it simply embodied the atmosphere of fear and horror. To have a happy and fulfilled life in this region was something unthinkable.
Overall, the turnout this time was 48 per cent and during the previous election it was around 60 per cent. Why has it decreased?
In my opinion, the real turnout was even lower. According to our estimates it was supposed to be approximately 40-45 per cent (maybe closer to 45 per cent, but quite possibly even lower). First of all, the authorities were focusing on the decreasing trend of the turnout, thinking that those who were dissatisfied would not come and therefore, proportionally, United Russia would receive more votes. These calculations were absolutely correct. Might I also add that where I live there were no signs pointing towards the polling station — no kinds of notifications, no placards (usually there are some kind of road signs) – there was nothing of that sort. In Moscow they relied on the decrease in turnout. In provincial towns, at least the ones I visited, the opposite occurred — there was active agitation, especially for the pro-Kremlin parties. In Moscow there was none, only during the last week did some kind of advertisements appear. It is a common thing to count on low voter turnout rates.
What, in your opinion, will be the result of the next presidential election? Is there any chance that a real opposition leader will appear? What is the real support for Putin?
There definitely will be no opposition leader, because the opposition is demoralised and crushed. Moreover, some of the opposition leaders are being arrested or isolated and this is preventing new opposition figures from appearing. The lack of access to mass media is significant in preventing opposition parties from developing and, on the other side of this issue, is the fact that a very powerful propaganda and discreditation machine is working against them. From our polls, it is clear that the negative image of the opposition is far more widespread than the public image of the leaders alone. There is very powerful and influential antidemocratic propaganda being directed against opposition parties. That is why, to assume that with all the new technologies and mass media you can somehow get recognised and challenge the ruling party, is an impossible idea. Taking to the streets and organising meetings with the voters does not work, or works just on the local level, as it we saw with Navalny, but on the country level it is simply impossible. When it comes to Putin, what does “real support” mean? The number of his supporters is not significant at all, the approximate maximum is 25 per cent of the population.This is a part of population very dependent on the government: army, police, public officials, some state employees along with retirees — this is not a large fraction of society. And in case of the rest – there are compulsion, pressure or the acknowledgment that there is no alternative. Putin is currently presiding over a situation in which there is no alternative. At the same time, there is an illusion that he will bring back the growth to the level it was during the years 2003 to 2010. His continued success rests exactly on his ability to do this, but he will not change his course of action. Even given the continuously decreasing standards of living and salaries – he will win the next election, with scandals and administrative pressure, falsifications – this is how the system works.
Levada Centre has been added to the infamous “foreign agents” list. What is the future of Levada Centre?
It is difficult to tell because this is a very unclear legal situation. We are going to try to appeal and protest the decision in court, although the chances that we will succeed are slim. No other organisations have managed to successfully appeal a decision of this nature. We are 141th on the list, so you can probably guess how long this process might take. We are going to try to find some kind of way out of this situation. What I can say for sure is that we will not have the same kind of freedom and independence that we used to. Most probably the two centres will be separated and some part of the analytical work will be terminated. There will be only commercial work left, so the picture is very gloomy for us as an analytical centre.
Lev Gudkov is a Russian sociologist, director of the Levada Analytical Center and editor-in-chief of the journal The Russian Public Opinion Herald.
Kacper Dziekan is a European Projects Specialist in the Civic Project Department of the European Solidarity Centre. He is also a PhD student at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland.