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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Mikhail Khmelev)

Russia and the Russians have changed beyond recognition in the 20 years since the beginning of major reforms. Today Russians do not care what is happening abroad or in the Russian corridors of power, who wins elections or what deputies vote for.
Now Russians care only about their own problems and well-being. The political disputes that shook the country in the 1990s have given way to social problems and criminal scandals.
According to VTsIOM, a pollster, the key events for Russians in 2006 were a scandal in the army surrounding the hazing of conscript Andrei Sychyov and the killing of Chechen terrorist No. 1 Shamil Basayev (half of respondents, respectively). About one-third of the respondents (27%) mentioned three high-profile murders, that of Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of Russia's central bank, Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known journalist, and former FSB lieutenant-colonel Alexander Litvinenko. But only 11% of Russians cited the administrative reform.
In December 2006, Russia’s parliament passed new electoral legislation, but Russians did not even remember it a month later. In January, only 15% recalled the controversy over the removal of the “none of the above” line on ballots and the abolition of the minimum turnout requirement.
As for foreign policy problems, they seem to worry only politicians and analysts.
Respondents were offered a list of answers from which to choose. When they were asked to provide an independent answer, 56% of them could not do so.
Nobody in Russia could have imagined several years ago that the country would be pushed into such deep political apathy. In the late 1990s, Russian society was divided into opposing groups, and the people saw only two options: a revival of the communist system, or a leap into unlimited democracy. News programmes began and ended with political items. The people discussed who would win the elections and where the new president would lead the country. Society reverberated with the echo of the Chechen war and terrorist attacks planned by international terrorist groups.
What has made Russians forget about politics?
Ideological apathy has become the main tendency in the majority of countries that are beginning to achieve economic prosperity. Russia is one of them. The ideological disputes that dominated public discussion several years ago have lost their significance.
Russia has entered the consumption era. People’s prosperity and incomes are growing. According to a leading Russian pollster, the Levada Center, the personal incomes of about a third of Russians have grown in the past ten years, and 66% of Russians now describe their financial situation as satisfactory or very good. Only 6% said their incomes had decreased.
No wonder that the significance of political problems has waned against that background, with the majority of Russians caring only about their own well-being. Experts agree that the lack of interest in politics and external problems will last as long as the Russian economy grows and Russians’ financial situation improves.
The number of political parties in Russia has multiplied in the past ten years, but Russians have lost the ability to distinguish between them. Affected by the loss of public interest, politicians are becoming more aloof from the people. Experts say that politics in Russia has become less meaningful and open, more ceremonious and removed from society. The country’s political space has been monopolised by a few key political parties and the state.
Another political cycle will begin in Russia in a few months. This year, Russians will vote in elections for the lower house of parliament, and in 2008 for a new president. But the outcome of these elections can be predicted accurately enough today. The majority of Russians are satisfied with the country’s progress.
According to the Levada Center, if the elections were held tomorrow, 49% of Russians would vote for the party that currently has the majority in parliament. The opposition camp has long been divided between the supporters of different parties. As many as 19% support the Communists, while 8%-10% favour right-wing parties. The remaining votes are divided between a vast majority of other parties and movements that differ very little from each other. All of them proclaim that their goals are public accord and social justice.
For the past 20 years, Russia has been consistently moving along a path well trodden by Western democracies, but public apathy is the only similarity between Russia and neighbouring European countries. More than 70% of the respondents to the Levada poll do not view themselves as Europeans; European political and cultural values seem strange to them.
At the same time, few respondents said Russia is an Eastern country. Numerous polls show that Russians think the country “stands somewhere in between.” This explains the nationwide support for, or rather the lack of visible protest against, the pragmatic foreign policy the current political leadership has pursued in the past few years.
Russians are happy with the material opportunities offered by political stability and do not want to lose them for the sake of abstract ideologies and noble political goals.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-