COMMENT: Russia electorate's priorities are changing

By bne IntelliNews September 7, 2012

Evgeny Gavrilenkov of Troika Dialog -

The most unpleasant Russia-related event during August was the trial and sentencing of members of the punk group Pussy Riot to two years in jail, which attracted enormous attention worldwide. The sentence was widely seen as disproportionate in the West, while most Russians were ambivalent toward the case, and many who followed the trial felt no respect or sympathy toward the young women. Overall, the main Russia-related headline for the West was a non-event for ordinary Russians, who do not regard the sentence as pressure on the opposition. Ordinary Russians clearly do not consider Pussy Riot or celebrities such as Ksenia Sobchak to be opposition leaders.

Meanwhile, it looks as though popular support for the opposition protests is waning. Opposition leaders are planning fresh protests in September, and the turnout will indicate the strength of anti-government feeling in the country. Polls suggest that fewer Russians plan to attend these protests should they take place. In general, ordinary Russians do not think that the protests will spread over the coming months.

President Vladimir Putin's approval rating declined last month but remains sufficiently high (at 63%, comparable with the level seen in December 2011 and January-February this year). The number of those who think the country is moving in the right direction has declined slightly (to around 41%, on par with the percentage of those who hold the alternative view; the rest are undecided).

That said, it is unsurprising that even though most Russians tolerate Putin (as they see no attractive alternative on the political landscape), a growing number of people would like to see a new president six years from now. This is quite encouraging news for politicians looking to become Russia's next president. Mikhail Prokhorov has been largely overlooked by the media in recent months and has seemingly failed to launch production of hybrid cars in Russia (initially planned for 2012) but is gradually developing his political project - the party he is building looks like it may become a real party, not a shell party, as initially designed.

In general, Russians believe that they need traditional civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.

However, opinion polls indicate that society is gradually becoming more "defensive": slightly more people than before believe that the country should not open up too much, and a growing number of Russians now consider global leadership to be more important than achieving high living standards and civil liberties. This shift may be largely associated with the fact that living standards have risen and more people now want to see Russia become stronger geopolitically.

This aspect should not be ignored by other politicians if they seriously intend to challenge Putin and United Russia. Thus far, this has not been the case at all, and the ruling class has been able to tap into the feeling of national pride among the people, which can be leveraged in the future.

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