Europe

Rosenberg's Russia: On the election trail

Russians go to the polls on 4 March to elect a president to replace Dmitry Medvedev. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely predicted to win the race, and with it a third term in office.

In his latest report ahead of the poll, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg considers the increasing importance of honesty in Russia.

WHY HONESTY IS SUCH A LONELY WORD

When I was in the Ural Mountains recently, I switched on the TV and got quite a shock.

In the regional news bulletin, a student was boasting about how she cheats in exams. She was at an exhibition about crib sheets, dedicated to 50 different ways of fooling examiners.

Viewers were shown a variety of cheat sheets: minute ones hidden under fingernails, slightly larger ones concealed under skirts and barely visible ones soaked onto sellotape. What surprised me most was an interview with a teacher who said she was all for it.

A few days later I was on a commuter train heading out of Moscow. When the conductor came round, it turned out that a lot of the passengers hadn't bought tickets - they were asked to get off at the next station.

All of this got me thinking about the level of honesty - or rather dishonesty - in Russia throughout the country's history.

Image caption "We're for honest elections" reads the placard

"In Russia, there was constant, incessant lying. People had to cheat all the time," internet entrepreneur and popular blogger Anton Nosik explains to me.

"We are to blame for many things we do dishonestly. But on the other hand it has been forced on us by the government that didn't let us get what we wanted the honest way. It never let us. Not during the Tsars, not during the Bolsheviks. Not during the post-Soviet Yeltsin/Putin era."

And yet since last December, tens of thousands of Muscovites have been taking to the streets to demand their government stops cheating. "We Want Honest Elections," they have been shouting, convinced that the authorities stole their votes in the parliamentary poll.

Why, in a country where dishonesty has long been tolerated, are some suddenly rejecting it?

Image caption In September, President Medvedev told supporters that Vladimir Putin should return to the Kremlin

"In 2007," Anton Nosik remembers, "we didn't back the Communist Party when it went to the Supreme Court over cheating in the 2007 parliamentary election. The party had compiled a 200-volume lawsuit about fraud, but we didn't care. We let the authorities be, because they let us be".

Russia's top blogger believes that all changed on 24 September 2011 - the day Vladimir Putin announced he would run again for president; especially after Mr Putin's admission that he had done a secret deal with Dmitry Medvedev long ago to return to the Kremlin.

"That was just a slap in our faces," Anton Nosik says. "A demonstration that [Mr Putin] thinks he may do whatever he pleases and he never cares what we think about that. People were speechless seeing how their possible opinion was disregarded."

Others believe it is not just this "slap in the face" which has made some in Russia determined to clean up the political system.

"Russians have been learning to tell right from wrong," believes Elena Pamfilova, the head of Transparency International in Russia.

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Media captionSteve Rosenberg reports from Russia on the battle for honesty in public life

"By 2012 they managed to recognise that what the government does is bigger cheating than anything else. Values are coming back to society and society is becoming adult.

"You don't expect a four-year-old kid to know algebra. But when the kid is 20 he's supposed to know. It is the same with values: cheating or not cheating, stealing or not stealing, fixing the elections or not fixing them."

Anton Nosik believes that it is foreign travel that has helped make Russia's middle class wish for a more honest society.

"There are places like New England in the US where you don't lock your car," he tells me.

"And when you've had that experience of not locking your car, you envy that. You want to be living in a country where they don't lock cars. If you want this life, you should be a part of a civilised community."

That does not mean Russians will tear up their cheat sheets overnight, queue up to buy train tickets or pack in the bootleg downloads.

What has in Moscow become a significant public movement for honest elections enjoys less support outside the capital: attitudes there may take longer to change.

Even those who do hold the government to account concede that creating a more honest country will take time.

Through the internet, a Soviet-era feature film called Kill The Dragon has become a symbol for those who believe Russians must first confront the demons of the past within themselves before they can hope to heal society.

"Killing the Dragon in ourselves really means we have to speak up for honesty, stop tolerating dishonesty and really be better people," opposition activist Sergei Yakovlev explains.

"We must be critical to ourselves. The dragon is our head and we have to work our way out of this. It is up to our generation to change these things. Our parents had excuses: a totalitarian state, before that World War, and before that Revolution. But we have no excuses. It is our duty to change this."

Steve's earlier reports: THE TOWN OF TANKS, STEEL AND SMOG

THE LONG JOURNEY TO SEE RUSSIA'S FIRST ELECTION WEBCAM