According to a poll just conducted by the Levada Center, 60 percent of Russians support the return of direct elections for regional governors, while only 20 percent oppose it. In addition, 40 percent of respondents were in favor of returning single-mandate districts for State Duma elections.

Does that mean that Russians have changed their mood as a result of the crisis? It would seem so, although not to a significant degree. By comparison, when people were surveyed to gauge their opinions of then-President Vladimir Putin’s new political program after the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, 40 percent of respondents were opposed to the canceling of direct gubernatorial elections, while slightly more than 40 percent were in favor. Later, people grew accustomed to the new arrangement and the number opposing the move decreased.
What does all of this mean for the “social contract” that many observers are now claiming has been canceled?
By coincidence, Putin came to power at the same time as energy prices begin to rise. The influx of petrodollars enabled Putin to strengthen the centralization of the state and to create the illusion — first in the minds of the people and later among the rulers themselves — that the economy’s growth was proof of the correctness of the country’s course and the political system as a whole. It was clear what the people got out of the arrangement: much-valued order and stability and an increase in the standard of living that even outpaced the country’s economic growth. They also received a return to the familiar paternalistic relationship with regard to state leaders and the impression that social justice had been restored as applied to both small-time business owners and the oligarchs.
What did the people lose in this bargain? Free elections and democratic institutions? Perhaps. But Russians’ short experience with both only led to disillusionment with the process itself and with its results. From the people’s point of view, the social contract means that the country’s leaders have a free hand to resolve their own problems in return for providing citizens with an orderly life and a decent standard of living. And the people received all of this without having to actually give anything in return. They simply did not resist when the authorities took something away, such as the free election of governors. But as a rule, these were things the people did not value highly in the first place.
The latest Levada Center survey offers evidence of significant changes in the public’s consciousness — not radical changes, perhaps, but still important. The shift boils down to the growing realization in the public mind that the old social contract no longer operates and that the authorities are in no condition to fulfill their obligations.
The results of the Levada Center survey look especially interesting against the backdrop of a survey measuring trust in regional and federal authorities that was conducted by the Kremlin-connected Public Opinion Foundation and “declassified” in May. It is only natural that citizens who are dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the authorities begin to ask themselves why those officials are ineffective. From there, it isn’t long before they begin challenging the foundation of that system — first in words and later in deeds.
This commentary first appeared in The Moscow Times.