European Affairs

Transitional Citizens: Voters and What Influences Them in the New Russia     Print Email
Shaazka Beyerle

By Timothy J. Colton
Reviewed by Shaazka Beyerle

Is there good news to come out of Russia in the past decade? Timothy Colton, Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University, believes the answer is Yes. The reasons for his optimism are presented in this major study of Russian voting behavior in the parliamentary elections of December 1995 and in the presidential election of June-July 1996.

Colton rightly sees Russia as an "exquisite laboratory" for observing parties and party affiliations in their initial phases of formation. The Russian experience is surely pertinent to other emerging democracies.

On the basis of his results, the Russian electorate can also offer reassurance that under difficult circumstances, new voters, an important cog in the wheel of democracy, can make informed choices.

In the two elections under treatment here, Colton has found that Russian voters, to their credit, were far more sophisticated and purposeful than outside observers had expected. They generally took their newfound democratic rights seriously, and developed the habits of voting quickly.

This was despite a lack of familiarity with democratic procedures, as well as the overwhelming uncertainties that inundated their lives, both in the public and private spheres.

Moreover, they defied predictions that they would vote irresponsibly, basing their choices, for instance, on personal economic gains, attraction to charismatic leaders or ethnic and religious identifications. That is certainly more than can be said about some recent elections in the West.

Russia has 109 million voters spread out over two continents, 11 time zones and 89 regions, one of the biggest voting populations on earth. While Western voters make their choices on the basis of campaigns that promise ever-more prosperity, or favors like tax breaks, Russians must choose on the basis of existential questions about the nature of their economic and political systems.

Russian voters are neither the most avid nor the most apathetic. The average turnout in four elections from the beginning of the new Federation to the 1996 presidential elections was 64.34 percent, more than in both Switzerland and the United States in the 1990s.

Although there were 35 parties or quasi-parties running in the 1995 elections, only four overcame the five percent threshold: KPRF (the Socialist opposition party ideologically close to the former Communist regime headed by Gennady Zyuganov); LDPR (the nationalist party under Vladimir Zhirinovsky); Our Home is Russia (a hastily assembled support party for Boris Yeltsin led by Viktor Chernomyrdin); and Yabloko (the liberal reform party under Grigory Yavlinsky).

Colton sets out to determine the factors influencing the voting decisions of the Russians, and thereby cast light on the behavior of "transitional citizens," his term for the people of an emerging democracy. The data from the study are derived from surveys taken before and after the elections, as well as dozens of statistical analyses, which would require a graduate degree to comprehend. Those of us unfamiliar with the wonderful world of statistics have no choice but to put our faith in the soundness of Colton's conclusions.

The heart of the book is an examination of a number of variables, including voters' background, social characteristics, degree of partisanship, opinions on the issues and their assessments of current economic and political conditions. The leadership qualities of candidates are also taken into account.

Social characteristics were not found to play a particularly strong role in voter choice. Contrary to expectations, ethnic and religious identification did not prove to be important. Age had the strongest impact, with older voters being more inclined to vote for the KPRF.

Partisanship, or a feeling of affiliation with a political party, is considered important for voter choice in mature democracies. Given Russia's past experience with an oppressive Communist Party apparatus, it should come as no surprise that fewer than 50 percent of Russian voters evinced any degree of partisanship, whether weak, moderate or strong. There was great distrust for political parties in general.

Colton's investigation of opinions yields some interesting results. The most appreciable effects of opinion on voting behavior was found among supporters of the KPRF, who expressed negative attitudes towards market economies and preferred order over liberty.

Russian opinions on political and economic issues were as consistent over time as in established democracies. Changes were more often in the intensity with which opinions were held, sometimes slipping into indifference. As in stable democracies, the greater the voter's awareness of political news and issues, the more stable his or her opinions.

Again contrary to scholarly expectations, voters were more alarmed by Russia's overall economic health than by their own unhappy plight. In the presidential elections, however, political assessments outweighed economic ones. Colton does not find this contradictory: while the electorate was justifiably concerned about economic problems, it did not reject political reform.

Unfortunately, the good news that Colton purveys is also old news. What are we to make of subsequent elections and political developments in Russia? Colton offers the results in a vacuum with no reference to the present.

While new data may not be available, a discussion of recent elections would have given some continuity. As it is, one has to wonder if the six year-old findings were a fluke or reflective of deeper processes in the Russian electorate.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.

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