Russians ambivalent on democracy, civil liberties?



Russians are more concerned about economic and political stability than democracy, according to a new poll conducted by the Levada Center:

The poll asked 1,600 Russian respondents to rank issues they viewed as important. Respondents first and foremost chose economic and political stability. In contrast, only 7 percent of Russians said they cared about democracy. The same poll was conducted in 1999 and at that point in time only 50 percent of Russians chose economic and political stability.

Stability has taken the center stage above unemployment at 48 percent and personal safety at 45 percent. Other values traditionally associated with liberal-democratic countries also took a plunge. Freedom of speech, expression and the right of assembly dropped from 11 percent in 1999 to 9 percent now in 2016.

On the other hand, despite Putin’s clampdown on Russian civil society, public opinion trends point to growing support for civil liberties, notes Theodore P. Gerber, the Director of the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia and Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Despite the Russian government’s claim that foreign-funded NGOs serve foreign interests and sow instability (a claim echoed to varying extents by governments in the other three countries surveyed), there is far from a consensus disapproving of such funding, even for an (expressly political) NGO that monitors elections (Figure 2, right), he writes for Open Democracy:

At the height of the Golos controversy in early 2012, 54% of Russian respondents opposed foreign funding of that type of NGO, but that number fell to 43% by 2015, despite a clear ratcheting up of anti-Western rhetoric by the Kremlin since early 2014. Moreover, a sizable minority (roughly one in five) of Russians approved of foreign funding for groups that monitor elections, and over one third were either indifferent to such funding, or did not have a clear opinion.  

Some pundit commentary exaggerates the extent to which the Russian population endorses Putin’s domestic agenda, Gerber cautions:

Russian society is complex and heterogeneous. We should not be deceived by the very high (and most likely valid) poll numbers showing support for Putin and hostility toward the US: these numbers do not necessarily imply societal consensus in favor of closing civil society space or cracking down on foreign-funded political NGOs. Normative change is a gradual process, and the Russian public is still divided with respect to the importance of civil freedoms and the influence of foreign funding over domestic political NGOs.

Against the backdrop of worsening signs for Russia’s economy, an increasing number of officials, economists, sociologists and political experts are becoming more pessimistic about the country’s political future, Russia Direct reports:

At last week’s Gaidar Economic Forum, ….Russian sociologists, including representatives of the All-Russia Public Opinion Center (WCIOM) and Levada Center, agreed that signs of a brewing crisis have been increasing since 2014-2015, with Russian households under strong pressure.

WCIOM sociologist Oleg Chernozub says that the number of Russians who have admitted that the crisis is an obvious fact and are ready to tighten belts, has increased. Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov sees this trend as “negative social stabilization,” when people try humbly to adjust to the downturn without expressing indignation and taking to the streets……Prominent Russian sociologist, Aleksei Levinson, head of Levada Center’s Analytical Department, also believes that the situation is risky. Any mistakes of the authorities, even though insignificant, might lead to grave consequences, he warns.  …..

At the same time, Leonid Gozman [left], democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, argues that the feeling of being humiliated, not economic woes, might lead people to the streets.

“People won’t put up with humiliation,” he said, pointing to “a moral aspect” of the risks that might trigger protests. He gives the example of the large-scale protests in 2011-12 – protests that were spurred by the fact that people felt offended by alleged fraud during the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Russia Direct talked to Gozman about the major problems facing Russia’s opposition and the Kremlin’s inner political circle. In addition, Gozman [a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED] gives his take on Russia’s major geopolitical challenges in 2016 and offers a piece of advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What is the major problem of the Russian opposition?

Leonid Gozman:  If you allow me to be a dissident among the Russian oppositionists, the problem is that we see the same people for many years and some people are tired of the same figures. Look, we have many people in Russia, million of millions who disagree with the current political course. We have million of millions who would appreciate liberalization of the country.

But we do not see those politicians who can aggregate these attitudes among the millions of those who support liberalization and the tens of thousands of those who vote for these people or take part in demonstrations. And this is the problem. The Russian opposition is much larger and much more serious than the Russian opposition leaders.


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