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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grassroots Apathy Is Fatal

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An election campaign is under way in Russia. Or rather, a whole slew of election campaigns are under way. Local government elections are scheduled in a number of regions this fall, and according to the law on local self-rule the new crop of officials should be at their desks by Jan. 1. Are the far-flung regions witnessing hotly contested political contests? Are the voters weighing the candidates' competing visions for improving the lives of their constituents? Do average voters even know who is running and when they are supposed to go to the polls? The answer to all three questions is a resounding "no."

In the meantime, many liberal and not-so-liberal politicians are holding forth about the regime's assault on the last bastion of electoral democracy. Having abolished direct gubernatorial elections earlier this year, the Kremlin has now set its sights on the direct election of government leaders at a local level. Given the total absence of protest anywhere in the country against the cancellation of gubernatorial elections, however, it seems reasonable to assume that no one will say a word if the Kremlin goes ahead with its plan to scrap local elections as well. And people won't hold their tongues because they're afraid of being packed off to a labor camp in Siberia. The fact is that average Russians have no idea why local elections are necessary or how the work of local government affects their lives.

Liberals who defend the people's right to direct local elections attempt to justify them by saying that local government has no rights, that its financial relationship with the regional and federal governments is entirely unequal and that the legal bankruptcy provision for local government is not transparent.

These arguments strike me as insufficient. In many regions, voter turnout in local elections barely exceeds 25 percent, and even that number doesn't cast its ballots in the first round. If voters were staying home because they regarded the local government bankruptcy provision as opaque or they were dissatisfied with local government's fiscal policies, that would be one thing. The problem is that average voters never think about these issues. They don't stay away from the polls because they're disenchanted with local government, but because they haven't the slightest idea why local government exists in the first place.

Even the candidates often seem unsure about the necessity of the very local offices they seek. You hear the same story in region after region: Either local politicians and entrepreneurs have no interest in running for office (there have been cases when no one could be found to compete in a local election), or they run simply to lobby for a particular cause or to promote their own agenda. In other words, almost no one runs for local office in order to improve both his own life and the lives of his neighbors. This motivation is completely absent in Russian politics -- at all levels.

Local government is hardly useless, as some maintain. Current law may not provide local government with the means to take decisive action, but it does afford the opportunity to study and respond to the needs of the local community. In any case, local government has the potential to form the core of civil society at the local level.

Russians, like others around the world, are taking less interest in national news and focusing instead on local stories about such things as public works projects, new schools or sports facilities that will help to keep their kids off the streets. All of these issues fall within the competence of local government, but most Russians completely ignore it. By old Soviet habit they carry on gazing at the heavens and assuming that all their problems will be solved, simply and at no cost to themselves, by the leaders at the very top. The assumption remains that if you want to run a gas line to your village, you ask the Kremlin directly. This same sort of general indifference may well lie in store for the school boards that the federal government plans to create across the country.

The current lack of concern about politics in Russia requires special study. It is not enough to say that people are simply tired of politics. The situation is far more complicated. One obvious point to make is that the political elite is not always or exclusively responsible for the failure of democracy, for suffocating or crushing its development from above. In Russia today, the people themselves are actively aiding the regime by stifling and killing off democracy from below.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil.