Graham Stack in Berlin -
The Moscow-based investment bank Renaissance Capital has published the July edition of "Politics by Numbers," which analyses the results of a random sample of 1,600 Russians from 46 different regions.
The story so far
The poll results show a growing sense of optimism and a feeling that Russia is moving in the right direction, both with respect to the 1990s and to the Soviet past. An overwhelming 85% believe or partly believe that Russia is better off since Vladimir Putin became president. More significantly, a clear majority, 66% of the population, now hold the Russian Federation to be an improvement on the Soviet Union.
Income-related issues dominate the political agenda. Wages and inflation are uppermost, followed by expenditure issues of corruption and health, and then pensions. Crime, and to a much lesser extent terrorism, are important second and third priority issues.
What's remarkable is that corruption is now a more pertinent first-priority issue than pensions, healthcare and education on the one hand, and crime and terrorism on the other. Since there is little that politicians can directly promise in terms of the top-two priorities of wages and inflation, except to continue the present course, analysts expect fighting corruption to be a key issue in the upcoming elections.
In terms of economic policy, there is overwhelming support for the current shift towards greater state intervention in the economy - or indeed for even more. This makes the electoral chances of any economically liberal platforms shaky. Putin, it seems, is about as liberal as it gets.
Judging by the numbers planning to vote, Russia is a flourishing democracy. The more than 77% predicted turnout for the upcoming presidential looks good against the US average of slightly over 50% and Poland's 51% in 2005. These figures fit with the actual voter turnout for presidential elections of 68% in 2000 and 64% in 2004.
Renaissance Capital does not provide an age breakdown for those intending to vote. Traditionally, older groups have shown more readiness to vote than the young, attributed to the Soviet compulsory vote system, and this is confirmed by current F.O.M (Public Opinion Fund) polls. This has, ironically, weighted electoral outcomes in favour of anti-democratic forces. However, Renaissance Capital also finds that, "a remarkably strong correlation between age group and belief in Russia as a democratic country. Younger participants were more likely to agree that Russia is a democratic country, with just over 40% of them either strongly or partly agreeing."
Further confusing the picture is the lack of belief in the significance of the individual vote to change anything. Only half of respondents believe their vote can change anything, compared with 70% believing in the power of their individual vote in the US.
An electorate in denial
In the minds' of voters, the presidential race is a neck-and-neck race between President Putin and the person that Putin chooses as successor. Putin is the overwhelming favourite in elections he has refused to participate in and from which he is constitutionally barred.
Despite 8 years of statements to the contrary, 50% of voters believe it is likely or highly likely that Putin will run for a third term in office. This wishful thinking on the part of voters could turn out to be a source of instability. Voters are simply in denial about Putin's imminent departure.
52% are likely to vote for a candidate backed by Putin, even if it goes against their original choice - and 69% believe he already has made his mind up in this respect.
Thus, Putin looks set to dominate and determine the upcoming elections whether he participates or not. His vote will be decisive.
Who will succeed him?
Taking into account the above, the question of who else features in the opinion polls is secondary. Predictably, the only other figures to feature significantly without Putin on the ballot sheet are his two closest associates, Dmitrii Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, who have been given a lot of air time in the context of the socially-oriented national projects (Medvedev) and diversification of economy towards high technologies especially in the defence industry (Ivanov).
To all intents and purposes, they are running neck-and-neck. However, in terms of voters' preferences if Putin does not run, they are overshadowed by "don't know" by a factor of 2:1.
This would confirm that Putin is the puppet master, and neither figure has really caught voters' imaginations. If either was to become president, it would inevitably lead to the conviction that Putin remained in charge.
There is some differentiation in preferences for Medvedev and Ivanov. Medvedev is more trusted with issues of jobs and economy, Ivanov with security and law and order. This matches their backgrounds - Medvedev as a legal scholar, civil servant and practising lawyer, while Ivanov a career KGB man. Each is one half of Putin.
Although the above chart seems to indicate Ivanov's broader attraction, jobs and economy are the most important issues for Russian voters. Overall, Medvedev appeals more to the urban, better-off population than Ivanov.
There has been a tendency in 2007 for Ivanov to gain in popularity at Medvedev's expense, now enjoying a slight and statistically insignificant lead of 15% to 13%. Basically, they are on equal footing - and it is to be assumed that their shared distinction in the eyes of voters is their closeness to Putin.
The situation is similar with political parties, where Putin-endorsed United Russia dominates, although on a lower level than Putin himself.
The Renaissance Capital survey suggests that the results of the upcoming election are entirely in Putin's hands. It also finds that most Russians believe the Russian Federation to be an improvement on the Soviet Union, and to be a democracy in which they intend to participate in via elections.
The optimistic scenario is that Putin, in voluntarily relinquishing power despite overweening popularity, will follow in the footsteps of George Washington in putting the seal on the country's incipient democratic development. The pessimistic scenario is the Julius Caesar one, whereby Putin allows himself to be elected again on the basis of his genuine popularity.
Somewhere in between is the problem of how Putin can sufficiently detach himself from his successor, short of leaving the country, to avoid overshadowing and undermining the authority of the presidency he worked to strengthen.
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