You routinely hear that "President" Vladimir Putin is loved and adored by the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Why, then, would he need to shamelessly manipulate the political parties? Is he afraid someone might vote against the ones he endorses? CNN reports (relying on the Associated Press):
MOSCOW, Russia (AP) -- Three parties that support President Vladimir Putin announced plans to merge Tuesday, a move widely seen as part of Kremlin-orchestrated maneuvering before parliamentary elections next year and Russia's 2008 presidential vote.
The leaders of the Party of Life, the nationalist Rodina (Motherland) and the Party of Pensioners said they were joining forces to create a new, as-yet-unnamed party to compete with the Kremlin-controlled United Russia, which dominates Russian politics and holds a massive majority in the lower parliament house, the State Duma.
The new party supports Putin's goals, opposes "political monopolism" in their implementation, Party of Life leader Sergei Mironov, a staunch Putin supporter who is chairman of the upper parliament house, said in televised comments.
"We favor a genuine multiparty system in Russia, and therefore are in opposition to United Russia," Russian news agencies quoted Mironov as saying.
Elections for the State Duma will be held in December 2007, followed a few months later by a presidential vote in which Putin is barred from running by term limits. The presidential balloting could be tense, as his allies seek to ensure they retain power and Kremlin factions wrestle for prominence.
The three parties merging have all cast themselves as more socially oriented and sensitive to the needs of economically struggling Russians than United Russia. Political analyst Igor Bunin said one of the goals of the merger was to create a force to attract voters who support Putin but dislike United Russia.
Bunin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said the merger was also driven by Kremlin forces seeking to create a "spare party of power" that could counterbalance United Russia -- ensuring it does not become mightier than the president's administration -- and that could replace it as the majority party if necessary.
The party created by the merger would have a good chance of winning seats in parliament, along with United Russia, the Communist Party and flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, Bunin said. But he said it could have trouble attracting support because it is unlikely to be seen as a real alternative to those in power.
The Guardian has already reported something along these lines:
Political fixers at the Kremlin think they have found a solution to the failing fortunes of the party that was engineered to support President Vladimir Putin: create another one that pretends to be an opponent.
Mr Putin's aides are concerned that United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that dominates parliament, is jaded and losing the support of the electorate. Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, said Russia needed "a second major political party, which will need time to come to life, though we've become used to thinking that everything must be done at one go". He said it could eventually replace United Russia, which lacks ideology besides offering unwavering support for the president.
Analysts predicted the new political force - which could unite several embryonic parties - would be entirely Kremlin controlled, but presented to voters as an opponent or alternative to United Russia.
Mr Surkov, who is known as the chief architect of fake opposition movements in Russia's world of virtual politics, made his comments in a speech to members of the Russian Party of Life. "The problem is that there is no major alternative party," he said. "Society lacks one leg to stand on when the other gives way."
The news was greeted coolly by political commentators, who said it confirmed the Kremlin's paternalistic attitude to political parties rather than a genuine desire for a competitive system.
"In reality, we are not talking about the two legs of society," said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama thinktank. "We are talking about the two hands of the presidential administration."
It is thought the new political bloc will be a centre-left patriotic movement formed of the Party of Pensioners and Rodina, two parties whose outspoken leaders were recently replaced with Kremlin-friendly figures. A third component would be the Party of Life, controlled by a devoted Putin supporter, Sergei Mironov.
So much for Russian democracy! Putin can only be viewed as the man who killed any last vestige of hope in Russia, and the results are predictable. RIA Novosti confirms them:
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.