Russia’s No-Participation Pact

MOSCOW – The Russian government, with its solid hold on power, has invariably gotten away with poor performance, inefficiency, corruption, and widespread violation of political rights and civil liberties. Polls consistently demonstrate that the Russian people are not deluded: they routinely respond in surveys that government officials are corrupt and self-serving. More than 80% of Russians, according to a poll conducted last summer, believe that “many civil servants practically defy the law.”

And yet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who still remains Russia’s most powerful person despite his not holding the presidency, has enjoyed high and steady approval ratings for years. A mild drop in early 2011 probably reflected frustration over social injustice and a growing sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. Even so, roughly 70% of respondents in a February poll said that they approved of Putin’s performance. President Dmitri Medvedev’s approval ratings are only slightly lower.

Russian leaders’ high ratings do not, however, indicate a rational preference for the incumbents over potential contenders; with political competition in Russia eviscerated, comparison and choice are not part of the political left. Rather, these poll numbers are a “vote” for the status quo; they convey a broadly shared sense that political change is not desired, notwithstanding terrorist attacks, technological catastrophes, lawless police, or rigged elections.

During the years of Putin’s leadership, the Kremlin has steadily pushed citizens farther and farther from decision-making by virtually dismantling representative institutions. Gubernatorial elections were abolished six years ago, and even elected city mayors have been progressively replaced by appointed officials. Polls routinely indicate that more than 80% of Russians believe that they can make no difference in national or even regional affairs.