Monday, December 10, 2007

Window on Eurasia: More than Falsification Behind North Caucasus Vote for Putin

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 10 -- Russian and Western commentators on the extraordinarily high vote totals Vladimir Putin's United Russia received in the North Caucasus in the Russian parliamentary elections have had a field day with suggestions that officials in that region, eager to please the Kremlin, engaged in massive falsification of the results.
While no one disputes that there was falsification there and often on an enormous scale, polls taken in the region before the vote suggest hat more of it involved boosting total turnout numbers rather than increasing the share of votes going to United Russia, although that certainly happened in many places there as well.
But over the last few days, specialists on polling data and elections as well as on ethnic and political traditions in the North Caucasus have come forward to argue that the results reported across this region, however obviously absurd they were at the margins, nonetheless reflected certain underlying realities in that region ( data.php?idar=174570).
While arguing that "these statistics do not reflect anything except the high level of bureaucratic eagerness and zeal," Sergei Markedonov, a leading specialist on ethnic relations in the Caucasus, pointed out that the experiences of officials and ordinary citizens in Soviet times and since means that "elections and reality in the Caucasus exist in parallel dimensions, which do not intersect."
Thus, people are prepared to vote as they are directed and officials are prepared to report whatever percentages those above them want to hear without worrying much about what the truth of the matter is. It simply does not matter, but that means that claims about the overwhelming victory of Putin's United Russia there "must not deceive anyone." Such reports certainly do not deceive the people there.
Aleksandr Oslon, the president of the Public Opinion Foundation which has conducted numerous polls there, offered yet another explanation for the Soviet style percentages many of the governments in the region reported. He argued that these figures reflected the continuing impact of "the 'clan culture' of these peoples."
Such a culture, the Moscow pollster said, has some important consequences on the way in which people choose to express themselves. First and foremost, he said, it means that "a woman has the same opinion that her husband does and second, a younger man always listens to older ones." That helps to create "a collective opinion of a large group of people."
"When [the Public Opinion Foundation] conducts polls in Daghestan and a woman is among the sample, she always gives the interview in the presence of her husband. If the husband agrees, then she gives the interview. When we ask whether she will participate in the elections, she looks at her husband, he nods and then she answers that she will.'
And still a third Moscow observer provided yet another perspective, Vladimir Dobren'kov, dean of the sociology faculty at Moscow State University and head of the Russian Sociological Association, suggested that both those ascribing the reported results to falsification or to some cultural straightjacket were reaching too far.
Instead, he said, the answer is simpler. "The Caucasus respects Putin, acknowledges his power and authority. They respect him because he consistently and firmly carries out a political line and they want him to remain in power. Besides, the peoples of the Caucasus are responsible and disciplined. And the results of the voting across the Caucasus is a testimonial of this."
The people in that region, he concluded, "consider Putin to be the guarantor of stability and peace, they want to be with Russia, and they reject separatist tendencies. Small peoples understand that their fate and the future depend only on Russia." (Many, of course, would classify Dobren'kov's own remark as an example of the currying of favors by North Caucasians that Markedonov described.)
Just how much each of these factors -- outright falsification, indifference to what is reported, "clan" culture, and true devotion -- affected the outcome is unlikely ever to be determined with any precision. Consequently, the debate over what happened in the non-Russian republics on December 2 is likely to grow, even though the reported results mean that there may be nowhere for them to go but down.

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