Russia has two leaders at one time, like two heads on the double-headed eagle on the State Emblem. The heads of the eagle looking in opposite directions, the Russian leaders look in same direction. To put it more exactly, it’s only one leader who looks, while the other is looking out shyly from behind his shoulder. Vladimir Putin says good bye and does not leave. As for Dmitry Medvedev, one may get an impression that he behaves not like a newly elect president, but as formerly appointed deputy prime minister. That’s a bizarre story.
What kind of trap has Russian society got into after 2 March election? To see into the situation, Novaya Gazeta applied to Eric Shiraev, Dr. of psychology, and Pr. of political science at the George Mason University, USA. He not only estimates the “voting” opportunities by Russians, but also compares it to social and political preferences by ordinary Americans.
Q: Did you watch the elections in Russia?
A: Well, there was not much to watch… Even the Internet information was rather little and mainly it was boring. This is why the past Russian election did not produce any interest with Americans. The latter are used to a certain elective tradition: 2-3 candidates, debates, opposition, the right and left… As Russia was not featured with anything of the above, the attitude to Russian elections was like it was in the rest of the world: it was looked at with ironical grin.
Q: So, from the point of view by the average American everything is wrong in Russia?
A: Today’s Russia is a bear female in ordinary Americans’ view. Before, she probably was a she-deer. And she’s become the bear again, the bear fed with the oil. The president is a former KGB agent. The country is authoritarian. It has become rich and cocky. The US newspapers often depict Russians who come to beaches wearing diamonds. In the 70’s that was a feature of Arabian sheikhs. Now this is a feature of Russians. Americans know that Abramovich owns a football club, but the interest to the European football is close to zero. The fact that actually it was only one candidate to run in the elections is perceived as continuation of the “bear’s story”. It is likely that after a couple of months the jokes about Russian bear and Medvedev (this family name means “bear in Russian”) will appear in the American media.
Q: Do Americans know who Medvedev is?
A: They know that he was appointed to be a successor. Generally, the monthly polls show that Americans know very little about what is happening in Russia. Russia is little written about in the media. Incidentally, two articles have appeared recently in two authoritative magazines. One of the papers stated that Russia creates problems for herself – this opinion is shared by most Americans. The other publication said that Russia was “missed” by the USA during Clinton’s term of office. And as the US ignored Russia, we have what we have at the moment. Such are two points of view.
Q: Which one do you go for?
A: It would be more advantageous to say that both. However, I believe it would be wrong to say that America “abandoned” Russia. Russia has her own logic of development. Yes, she has passed through abasement in the 90’s, but she has chosen this painful and authoritarian way by herself. That choice was not influenced by the USA.
Q: Is it possible that something change with Medvedev’s coming?
A: It’s rather America that will change in case McCain comes to power. He is a pragmatic politician and his spirit is young, despite his age of 70. By the way, Reagan was also 70 when he became president. And some also said that he was a mammoth to be exhibited in the museum. But he worked 8 years in his presidential office, and that work was rather effective.
Q: They say here that McCain’s attitude towards Russia is quite tough.
A: This is for now. This is a winning position as McCain places emphasis on security provided for America. That’s important for Americans. They like comfort more than anyone else does. The terrorist act of 9/11 was a blow not only on the US prestige, but also on the inherent feeling of comfort. So McCain is playing on that ground – that’s security, armed forces, tough approach to Russia. Americans like it. But his words about tough approach are equal to those by your politicians saying about “strong Russia” and “united Russia”. That’s all politics. If McCain becomes the president, he wouldn’t be too tough.
Q: Talking of the set of the contenders. Obama, Clinton, McCain – a black man, a woman and a former military. Does this layout influence the preferences by American electorate?
A: In private conversations the Republicans express their content with the fact that it’s a woman and a black man to be contenders from the Democratic side. They are considered to have little chance at the national election. Here significant are stereotypes. The bearer of those stereotypes, that’s the average American, does not appear to be willing to vote for Obama, for example. Generally, the problem of the Democrats is that they say that America is an aggressor with imperial ambitions and that the American society is ill. People don’t like it.
Democrats promise changes. That’s good, but that means America will have to admit having lost the game. Many Americans, especially the middle class, are not ready for that. McCain uses that stating that America is a strong, talented country and it will be such forever. But McCain is older than Hillary and Obama. The American history says: an aged contender loses, as a rule. The exception was Reagan again.
Q: Such a set of contenders – is it a political correctness?
A: This is money. Bill Clinton was a factual head of the Democratic Party since 1992. Hillary was the uncrowned princess all the last fall. Obama represents interests of the large industrial centers – Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. He is supported by Trade Unions and by liberal Hollywood stars. He is young, well educated and he speaks perfect language. Besides, he is the lawyer. Almost all the US presidents were lawyers.
Q: The elections may be compared to an advertising campaign. The better you advertise, the more votes you get. From the psychological point of view, what do the contenders count on in this current presidential campaign in the USA?
Q: There are two points to be mentioned here. First, 90% of those who will be voting in November, have already defined their choice. So the struggle is going on for those remaining 10%. Second, this is about the youth who are going to vote for the first time in their life. Judging from estimations done, half of those have not decided yet. And so the struggle is dedicated to them too. It’s like in advertising of beer, cigarettes etc. It would be useless to advertise beer to adults like me, we have already tasted everything. And young people can be convinced that this sort is best. Same applies to advertising of the presidential contenders.
Q: And what do think has influenced the choice by electorate in Russia? Was it unidirectionality of the official press media and TV?
A: It seems to me that either Putin or someone else did not give instructions to put a ban on anyone. It was rather a journalist’s self-censorship. In today’s Russia it’s more advantageous to be a self-censor due to fear of losing what a journalist has. I mean not political, but rather material interest by journalists serving the authority. They got wealthy and developed a certain way of life. They can have nice cars and go abroad on vacations. This and many other things they do not want to lose because of such a “trifle” as politics. One may say this is the material basis of the loyalty by journalists, and I regard it to be possible that some of them are sincere in their attempting to convince the society that everything is all right in the country.
Another observation: it’s just impossible in Russia to evoke a response from high ranking officials. I made a small experiment, sending e-mails to the electronic addresses at the websites of the official departments and asking for being received in my capacity of an American professor. I wrote such letters to the prosecutor’s office, various ministries, and State Duma. I sent 14 letters and I got no response from anyone.
Q: America changed after 11 September. Russia, having gone through several tragedies that might have influenced self-perception by the nation – that’s the death of the Kursk submarine, Nord-Ost, Beslan – does not seem to have changed this self-perception as it may be concluded from the polls done. The trust level to the authority is still high with us. Why?
A: When I give a course on the media at my institution, I show a documentary about Beslan tragedy. My audience can’t help crying. Then we discuss the film and talk about Russia. My students come to conclusions that no one really knows what happened there and who is to blame and to be held responsible. No punishment is done and the fear still stays. To put it more exactly, people are facing this fear alone. Who can people apply to for support when the Russian authority has eaten up all the state and pubic institutions? People have been left no choice.
In America there is the choice – that’s courts, lawyers, media, public organizations that will protect you to the best of their ability. And the new Russia looks like that at the soviet power.
Q: Does it seem to you that Russia is tired of Putin after 8 years of his office?
A: I don’t think so. This is only beginning. He has just laid the foundation. Most Russians see him as a leader who has managed to bring stability and order into the country.
Q: Bush has been in his office also for eight years. Is America tired?
A: Yes, America is tired. In America much less depends on the president. The life of Americans goes its own way. For them it is more important that their statesmen, including the head of state, do not botch things up.