If opinion polls are borne out, a widespread disenchantment in Russia will mean a big setback for Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
MOSCOW — When Russian leader Vladimir Putin climbed into the martial-arts ring in the Olimpiysky Palace in downtown Moscow recently to congratulate a Russian wrestler who had quite convincingly beaten his American opponent, he was greeted by an unfamiliar sound.
The crowd, which, given the high ticket price, consisted mostly of wealthy and middle-class Russians, booed, with some shouting, “Go away!”
The prime minister’s news service later hurried to explain that it was a misunderstanding and that the audience last week was booing not Putin but American fighter Jeff Monson.
“The booing was obviously aimed at Monson,” said Putin’s spokesman. “It is absurd to speak about some message sent to Putin!”
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In October, President Dmitry Medvedev, who is leading Putin’s United Russia party into parliamentary elections Sunday, suffered a similar public-relations scramble after a visit to the Journalism Department at Moscow State University.
When his security detail prevented many students from meeting with the president, department members said they organized a subbotnik, the Soviet-era term for a compulsory “volunteer” day, during which they thoroughly washed the auditorium to eradicate any traces of Medvedev’s visit.
Afterward, the presidential news service took pains to say that Medvedev had just rented an auditorium from the university to meet with young people, and not with the students themselves.
The tandem leaders may find comfort in the knowledge that voters are increasingly fed up with other politicians too, with apathy and frustration widespread.
Last month, the independent Levada Center polling organization reported that Putin’s and Medvedev’s popularity ratings had slipped to 67 and 62 percent, respectively, the lowest showing in years for both. (Just a year ago, Putin’s and Medvedev’s approval ratings were 79 and 75 percent, respectively.)
Only 53 percent of respondents said they intended to vote for United Russia in Sunday’s election, raising the specter that it will lose its two-thirds majority in the parliament’s lower house, the State Duma.
If the polls are borne out and United Russia drops from its current 315 seats to a projected 253 in the 450-seat house, the party would still have a majority, but one insufficient to adopt some laws and introduce constitutional changes.
But opposition movements aren’t faring any better. The only truly liberal opposition force on the ballot, the Yabloko party, gets a mere 1 percent and will certainly not reach the 7 percent needed to enter parliament, according to the same poll.
A liberal opposition protest against United Russia’s monopoly on power last weekend in downtown Moscow attracted only a few hundred people, nothing like the hundreds of thousands who came out in the early 1990s to demand an end to communism.
“People are just tired of the same faces on all sides of the political spectrum of the country, of the same propaganda and the same promises that no longer mean anything to them,” said Boris Dubin, senior researcher with Levada. “About 60 percent of the population believes that Russia needs a change, but they just lack direction and they don’t see a force that can outline a convincing plan aimed to take the country on a road of real reforms.”
Back in the early 1980s, in the stagnant era of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, people also were apathetic, but they “at least didn’t know such a thing as crushed hopes,” the pollster said.
“Today they don’t see anything good for them in the future, and many of them suffer from the syndrome of crushed hopes.”
Polls indicate that 41 percent of Russians believe the country is moving in the wrong direction and that 53 percent think that the coming elections won’t change their lives for the better.
In the future, Putin and his party will face more apathy and irritation, predicted Lilia Shevtsova, senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“People are increasingly growing sick and tired of the Kremlin leaders and their fake threats and empty promises, and this tendency appears to be impossible to break,” Shevtsova said.
In a sign of the growing apathy, a series of prime-time political debates in recent weeks drew small audiences as people opted to turn to other channels.
They were missing a lot of somewhat peculiar mudslinging. In one fiery debate last week, the leader of one party on the ballot screamed at the top of his voice at a lawmaker representing the ruling party: “You are a party of swindlers and thieves!”
As if acknowledging the slur, the United Russia lawmaker screamed back: “It is better to be in the party of swindlers and thieves than in the party of murderers and rapists!”