Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Russian Politics Has Entered a Period of ‘Negative Depoliticization,’ Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 16 – Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party dominated the recent elections in the region less because its activists consciously worked to drive down participation at a time when the ratings of the party have fallen than because Russian society has entered a period of “negative depoliticization,” according to a Moscow analyst.

            On the Liberty.ru portal, Vyacheslav Danilov argues that this was perhaps more important in determining the electoral fraud liberal commentators have pointed to and is likely to be a defining factor in Russian politics at all levels in the course of the next several electoral cycles (liberty.ru/Themes/Pervye-vybory-epohi-negativnoj-depolitizaci).

            According to Danilov, the defining feature of “negative depoliticization” is that “people have lost faith in the existing political institutions, including parties and the institution of elections as such.” Their distrust, he suggests, is manifested now by low turnout but could assume the form of “collective protest actions, sabotage, and other forms of dissatisfaction.”

            Thus, in his view, Russian citizens “remain to a sufficient degree ready for potential political mobilization … display interest in politics [at least judging by] the growth in the raitings of political television programs, but politics as a whole does not satisfy them” because there is “a lack of adequate political proposals from plays in the public space.”

            Danilov notes that “liberals are already asserting” that the ruling United Russia Party “’stole the elections,” but he argues that “the situation is more complex, a reflection of the fact that “’the party of power’ has been converted into ‘the ruling party,’” thus “separating” at several levels “abstract power from its concrete public image in the form of United Russia.”

            While the liberal charge may be true in some cases, Danilov continues, the decline in participation in elections in some reflects not only negative depoliticization but such “unconventional means” as the earlier conduct of open primaries in which “practically all elite players took part.” Having voted then, voters did not feel the need to vote in the final election.

            As a result, the outcome of the elections in places like Kamchatka and Sakhalin was from the ruling party’s perspective “super successful,” and it thus “is not excluded” that they including relatively open primaries “will become the model of future United Russian campaigns in the regions.”

            That trend, of course, entails some “new risks,” Danilov suggests, including the rise of a public airing of “intra-elite conflicts.”  At the regional level, that will work well, but at the federal level, it has the potential to create more serious divisions and exacerbate the distrust many in the regions have for the center.

            The regional elections just completed, the Liberty.ru analyst goes on to say, took place at a time of “extremely low ratings” for both United Russia and its Leaders.  Indeed, both were at historic lows. But as every poll found, these low ratings have not been “accompanied by a growth in the level of trust to marginalized players.”

            The concept of “negative politicization” helps explain why that is so, Danilov argues.  It is very different from “positive politicization” which exists when there are “high and stable ratings” of those in power.  Rather, it “is characterized by a weak interest in the political process and low turnout for elections,” exactly the pattern earlier this month.

            The kind of depoliticization now taking place in Russia “works for United Russia” because it means that “people have forgotten the December slogans” against the regime. Further, it helps United Russia because the branding of parties in the regions is “diffuse,” with people “ready to change power but not to change the brand of power.”

            If it is to rebuilt public support and legitimacy, Danilov suggests, United Russia will have to recognize both its lack of legitimacy unless there is some element of competition and the fact that the divide between the interests of the elite and the masses “has never looked so great in the Putin era” as it does now.

            According to Danilov, “the catastrophe of ratings” of the party of power “is explained above all by the unsuccessful political planning” of last spring, planning which one can “conditionally” label “the Conservative Turn” and that occurred because the Kremlin drew “incorrect conclusions” from the March 4 presidential elections.

            “Just like part of the liberal media establishment,” the analyst continues, the United Russian leadership “decided that ‘the Putin majority’ a) exists and has strengthened and b) that it is conservative by nature.”  Neither of these propositions is completely true as the October 14 elections showed.

            The key piece of evidence for that conclusion, Danilov says, involves the growing divide between the victories of the ruling party in the regions and its ratings decline in the country as a whole. The latter reflects “the orientation of the population to local elites under the mask of federal brands,” while the former highlights “the lack of trust in the politics of the Center.”

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