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Democracy at play

August 17, 2011

Nothing like a good Putin and Medvedev story. They’re favorites it seems, at least among a lot of international relations circle. The New York Times this morning had an above-the-fold story about the polling that’s taking place ahead of next year’s elections, in which the two men will be facing off for the presidency, and perceptions of the two candidates in the context of the nation. Much like in the US, if not to a greater extent, public polling groups are playing a significant role. Their direct lines into the Kremlin feed insight to leadership that may not be affecting actions on the ground, but certainly has taken hold of rhetoric.

In some respects, it is astounding to think that the president and prime minister of Russia care so very much about what the tens of thousands of their citizenry think about a variety of issues. That alone seems so lovely, so democratic. Except, it’s not. The article doesn’t go so far as to criticize the polling, but that criticism seems implicit. It’s another act in the name of a still faux democracy. Yes, it’s a tribute to the importance of the will of the people–a will that wasn’t received or reciprocated for decades. The two leaders do care. But only inasmuch as the will of the people keep them in power. Popularity trumps substance.

This is true in a number of countries, but nowhere has it been so acute as in Russia, where moves to drum up attention like publicity stunts (Putin riding a horse shirtless, visiting the mothers of victims of one accident or anther) seem to double for actual action. Some of my favorite passages were those that included excerpts from one Mr Aleksandr A. Olson, described as “president of the Public Opinion Foundation, who has delivered weekly briefings at the Kremlin for 15 years.”

“This system which has developed over 10 years is based on the support of the population, and that is a medical fact,” he notes. Yes, “medical fact.” This is more than likely an error in translation, but it speaks to the democracy as science notion that has crystallized in so many newer democracies.

When speaking about upper and middle classes being disgruntled, Olson says “what is this dissatisfaction connected with? It is connected with the fact that their ecology is not favorable,” he said. “For them, the world is painted in negative colors. But that world is not very big. There is another big world, it has its own problems.” I like his point, but just like the use of the word “medical” I am lost on the use of the word “ecology.”

Polling and responsiveness do not equal democracy. Russia knows this, its leaders know it. But in time it will take. Arriving at a democratic place has always been a long and fitful and hardly linear process. Medvedev and Putin’s approach to using polling numbers to assuage the public in their speeches feels manipulative and wrong. But, this facade of cooperation will disintegrate. It is just a matter of time.

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