08 December 2007

Russia Votes for Putin

Sorry it's been a while! It seems like as soon as I got back from Estonia, I got totally flooded with goals and deadlines: with Christmas shopping and knitting, institute Christmas party planning, finishing up the grad school applications I meant to finish back in October, writing another article for the institute's newspaper (I wrote an article entirely in Russian back in November, by the way! My first published work in Russian!), stepped-up balalaika practicing so I can give a "concert" when I go home (family, steel yourselves), and helping one of my students rush to submit a grant application to spend a year at a U.S. university, it seems like every waking hour this week has been allotted to the service of some pressing goal. Ha, and my students ask me if I get bored living alone in my cold little apartment. Not a chance.

Since my illegitimate free internet has vanished, I might not upload my Pskov pictures until I go home; instead, I bring you a Politics Post (yay!).

First up, devoted reader Paul asked me my thoughts about the recent Russian Duma election. Well, Paul, I'm glad you asked. I think. My thoughts are rather confused, but I'll do my best to at least condense a few of them here.

Having read the fascinating but rather one-sided Anna Politkovskaya, and being an American who, like many of my compatriots, maybe tends to put a little too much trust in the picture of the world the American media presents, I spent a lot of the run-up to these elections with a very sour outlook on Russian politics. Putin, who is adored by a large sector of the population, frankly terrifies me, and a lot of what you can read in American newspapers about the elections seemed to be confirmed by what I observed here. (If you haven't seen any news about the elections, Google it, you'll find plenty.)

I was especially shocked on my recent trip through Moscow and Pskov just a few days before the election. For some reason, United Russia, Russia's ruling party (and, at least since a few months ago, the party of Putin), didn't advertise all that much in Taganrog. Some billboards here and there, posters in every shop window, but nothing too blatant. (For Russia, I don't count posters in every shop window as blatant.) Moscow and Pskov, though, were both total United Russia lovefests. Enormous billboards on every block, flags on street lamps, banners hanging from buildings, and all for United Russia. The Western media says that opposition parties had a lot of trouble securing advertising space, and I can believe it – I saw a few LDPR and A Just Russia posters here and there, and a noteworthy smattering of Communist Party posters, but that was all. A Just Russia, while an alternative to United Russia, is in no way an "opposition" party, since it's also pro-Putin and was in fact created by the Kremlin. LDPR, which ironically stands for "liberal democratic party of Russia," is a nationalistic party whose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, alternately spews misogynistic, anti-Semitic and Russian chauvinist venom in such a ridiculous manner that he's basically a caricature of himself. The party is mostly seen as a joke, so it serves the convenient function of an opposition party without posing a threat to United Russia's power. That means that except for the Communists, no real opposition parties (and others do exist) had any visible advertising.

As a friend mentioned in his analysis of the elections, United Russia's advertising really pressed the concept that a vote for United Russia is a vote for Putin. The reason for this was probably that while many Russians love Putin ("Putin is great. He's made Russia strong. That's why your media hates him. America wants Russia to be weak," is a refrain I've heard over and over and over), no one seems to like United Russia. Understandably – Russia doesn't exactly have a history of kind, loving ruling parties. This United Russia = Putin setup worked because of the structure of the election: each party prepared a list of candidates; voters then voted for a party, and the seats in parliament (the Duma) were divided according to the percentage of votes each party received nationwide (minimum requirement to get any seats at all is 7% of the vote, raised from 5% four years ago – according to Politkovskaya, this change was made to further silence opposition voices, since most opposition parties get very few votes). Based on that, the top one or two or ten or fifty names on a party's list actually get seats in the Duma. Putin was Name #1 on United Russia's list. This led to ads like a picture of a hand checking box number 10 on a ballot (United Russia's box), which had the United Russia logo and Putin's name in big letters; or the most blatant, an ENORMOUS (covering the entire side of a building) banner looming over Manezhnaya Square (right off Red Square) in Moscow that said, "Number 10 – Moscow Votes for PUTIN!" – no mention of United Russia at all. And what a prime location! Most amusing and confusing to me was a banner I saw hanging over a bridge in Moscow. It simply said:

Voting in the Duma elections proceeds by party lists! Vote for party and its leader!

Russian has no articles (a/the), so that could be translated as either "Vote for the Party and its leader," or "Vote for a party and its leader!" It wasn't clearly associated with any party, but it did have a Russian flag in the same squiggly shape as the Russian flag on the United Russia logo. Subtle psychological advertising, or am I reading too much into it? I really can't say.

At any rate, with my American indoctrination and the clearly lopsided advertising, I should have had very negative view of the elections. What ended up tempering this point of view? Well, human psychology, mostly. First of all, all of the Russians around me were utterly complacent about the election. As my boss at work said when I asked whether the mayor of Taganrog had been re-elected (which I'm sure he was, since I didn't even see any advertising for either of his opponents), "I have no idea. What does any of this matter? It's completely irrelevant." Most Russians seem to feel that life will proceed in more or less the same manner no matter which corrupt politicians are controlling the public coffers. At one point my students got into a heated argument about whether Putin was really good for Russia or not, but even that seemed to be a point of philosophy rather than a call to action. And it's surprisingly hard to feel worked up about something when everyone around you is saying it's nothing to be worked up about – you start to feel a bit crazy for caring.

Second, and more frightening, was how much I could feel myself relaxing my views when I watched Russian media. The television media is totally controlled by the state, so all the election news was very positive – except when they were talking about opposition leaders, of course. Even though I was consciously aware of the spin they were putting on it, I could tell that the constant association of United Russia and Putin with security, order, and positive emotions had an effect on me. Very 1984-ish.

By now I've done enough reading of American Russia scholars to know that many of them don't like the purely negative image of Russia the American media serves up, and I guess I tend to agree. Putin has done good things for Russia, or at least, good things have happened to Russia while Putin has been in power. All the same, I don't like the cult of personality that's been built around him, the media's insinuation that he's the only one who can lead Russia, or the general direction he's taken Russia in in terms of human rights and democracy. I'm especially suspicious of his dealings with the Chechen Wars and the related terrorist acts, and I'm not particularly impressed by his international relations skills, which seem to be built on strong-arming, bravado, and endlessly repeated rhetoric about not letting other nations push Russia around. And the elections? Despite the hypnotic power of the French and American election observers the news showed saying, "They were so clean! Very democratic!", I'm not ready to call them fair by a long shot.

(Well, that was long! I guess my Estonian political post will have to come separately.)


Seth said...

Says a student of mine: "Vladimir Girinowskii has a good political program. And his agressive behaviour it's just a part of his image. I understand that like president his nomination is unacceptable but his party is pretty good. You should know about it." He's also a half-Jewish anti-Semite. Says he: "Why should I reject Russian blood, Russian culture, Russian land, and fall in love with the Jewish people only because of that single drop of blood that my father left in my mother's body?" This also probably explains why his repeated attempts to impregnate his wife by filling her vagina with his blood have not produced a child.

Paul said...

Thanks for the long answer! It's always fascinating to see the differences in attitude between the West and the former USSR -- I met a guy from Belarus at my college once, and despite living for a long time in the west he seemed to have a positive attitude towards Lukashenko (although I didn't ask him directly). The passive attitude towards political rule (evidenced in the bloke who stated it didn't matter who the mayor was) is a good reminder for cynics such as myself that the vicious squabbling politicians and their supporters go through in the West at least indicates a lively and active commitment to representational government.