As I've talked with many Americans about Russia, they don't seem to really understand the mindset of regular Russians. Many Americans assume that they should act as they themselves would, especially when it comes to questions of collective action and political expectations. This article speaks to this-- lots more could be written, but it's a start.
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
New York Times
Published: October 24, 2009
MOSCOW — Soon after polls closed in regional elections this month, a blogger who refers to himself as Uborshizzza huddled away in his Moscow apartment and began dicing up the results on his computer. It took him only a few hours to detect what he saw as a pattern of unabashed ballot-stuffing: how else was it possible that in districts with suspiciously high turnouts in this city, Vladimir V. Putin’s party received heaps of votes?
Uborshizzza, who by day is a 50-year-old medical statistician named Andrei N. Gerasimov, sketched charts to accompany his conclusions and posted a report on his blog. It spread on the Russian Internet, along with similar findings by a small band of amateur sleuths, numbers junkies and assorted other muckrakers.
Out went their call: This election was dirty! We demand a new one!
The country’s response, though, was to avert its eyes.
There was none of the sort of outrage on the streets that occurred in Iran in June, when backers of the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were accused of rigging the election for him. Nor the international clamor that greeted the voting in Afghanistan, which last week was deemed so tainted that President Hamid Karzai was forced into a runoff.
The apparent brazenness of the fraud and the absence of a spirited reaction says a lot about the deep apathy in Russia, where people grew disillusioned with politics under Communism and have seen little reason to alter their view.
The thinking seems to be that Mr. Putin is in charge and the opposition is feeble, so there is no point in trying to get your voice heard, no matter that the country faces serious problems.
“People are passive because they feel that there is absolutely no opportunity to change the system,” Mr. Gerasimov said.
The election also highlighted the coarse political dynamic in Russia.
Mr. Putin, the prime minister and former president, is popular in part because he is given credit for the economic gains and stability of the last decade. He has also suppressed or co-opted the opposition. Fairly or unfairly, his party had enormous advantages in the Oct. 11 elections and was certain to triumph.
Yet the party, United Russia, chose not merely to defeat its opposition, but to crush it.
Such is the impact of the so-called vertical of power, a structure that is a defining trait of the Putin era. The Kremlin wields a concentrated authority and keeps tight rein over regional cadres, which always defer to those at the top.
Before the election, regional officials were told that they would be held accountable if United Russia fared poorly. They seemed to respond by doing whatever they could to ensure overwhelming victory — and preserve their own jobs.
The officials knew that they could act with relative impunity because of United Russia’s dominance of the government, as well as the public’s indifference. “It seemed as if the pressure to provide the necessary results overcame any fear of being caught,” said Sergey Shpilkin, 47, a Moscow resident and physicist by training who blogs as Podmoskovnik.
The official turnout in the Moscow city council election was 36 percent of registered voters, but Mr. Shpilkin was part of a team that estimated that the true figure was 22 percent, with the extra votes improperly assigned to United Russia.
United Russia won 32 of 35 seats, with 3 for the Communists. Mr. Shpilkin said two or three other opposition parties should have won seats.
(After the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Shpilkin did a novel study. He showed that a disproportionately high number of polling stations had figures for overall turnout that ended in either 0 or 5, suggesting that they had been made up. Moreover, stations with higher turnout reported unusually high support for the victor, Mr. Putin’s protégé, Dmitri A. Medvedev.)
Another blogger who posted an analysis of the election this month said the public’s attitude reminded him of a Russian saying, “My hut is on the edge of the village; I know nothing,” that speaks to the reluctance to get involved.
“Unfortunately, in society, that sentiment now prevails,” said the blogger, who signs his posts “Capitan-Blood” and lives in St. Petersburg.
Opinion polls in recent years bear him out. One showed that 94 percent of respondents believed that they could not influence events in Russia. According to another, 62 percent did not think that elections reflect the people’s will.
Beyond staging a walkout in Parliament and a few demonstrations, opposition parties have done little to protest the election. Mr. Putin pronounced the voting generally fair, as did election regulators with close ties to the Kremlin.
Still, the evidence was hard to ignore.
Overall turnout was 18 percent in one Moscow district, and United Russia garnered 33 percent. In an adjacent district, turnout was 94 percent, and the party got 78 percent.
Sergey S. Mitrokhin, leader of Yabloko, a liberal party that lost both its council seats in the election, voted in District 192. So did his family and close friends.
On the district’s official tally, Yabloko was listed as having received no votes.