Baku, April 2 – Slightly more than half of Russians in almost all social, economic and political groups view the rising tide of Western criticism of the state of democracy and human rights in Russia as interference in their internal affairs, a pattern that undercuts many Western assumptions about the nature of political development there.
From 1991 to the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s second term, Russians generally divided in their reaction to Western criticism of their country in the ways many in the West expected, with older, poorer, and more communist groups angry and younger, richer, and more liberal ones more acceptant.
But the results of a poll conducted by the Levada Center earlier this year show that with only two small exceptions – supporters of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) being somewhat more angry and backers of Yabloko and SPS more acceptant – Russians have a common and negative view of Western criticism.
For the 1600 person sample as a whole, 16 percent said they agree with the idea that Western criticism of the state of democracy and human rights is “definitely” a form of interference in their country’s internal affairs, with another 25 percent saying they were more inclined to agree with that than not.
On the other side of the divide, 21 percent of the entire sample said they were more inclined not to see it as interference than the reverse, but only six percent said such criticism was “definitely not” interference in Russia’s internal affairs. Another 22 percent of the sample said that they found it difficult to give an answer.
In short, just over half -- some 51 percent -- are inclined to view Western criticism of their country as a form of interference in Russia’s internal affairs, while slightly more than a quarter -- 27 percent – saying that they disagree with that proposition (www.levada.ru/press/2008040101.html).
Given both Russian history and the way in which the Russian media under Putin have presented such Western criticism as unacceptable, this overall pattern is not surprising, but the Levada Center’s finding that virtually all social, economic and political groups share the same pattern of attitudes is.
Russian men were slightly more likely than women to view Western criticism as interference, 57 to 27 as compared to 47 to 28 respectively. But there was little difference among age groups, and the oldest cohort in fact was slightly less inclined to view Western criticism as interference than younger ones.
The same near unanimity in views was also found among groups at all levels of education, income, and residence. The only notable divergence involved residents of Moscow who were slightly less inclined to view Western criticism as interference than those living elsewhere.
Only when it came to political divisions was there much difference and only between voters for United Russia, Just Russia, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) who were close to the overall figures, on the one hand, and those who backed SPS plus Yabloko and the LDPR, which diverged significantly, on the other.
The first three were within a percent or two of the overall figures, but those who backed SPS plus Yabloko were less inclined to view Western criticism as interference, 34 saying they were inclined and 38 percent saying they were not, while LDPR voters were slightly more inclined to view such criticism as interference, 60 to 27.
This pattern of agreement is so broad that the cleavages Western governments had hoped to exploit in order to generate support for democracy and human rights simply no longer exist. And that in turn means that the Russian government likely can count on support simply by condemning any Western criticism.
Such a situation sets the stage for an increasingly prickly, nationalist, and assertive Russian polity, one whose leaders will likely seek to manage less by meeting the needs of their people and the rights they should have than by denouncing the West for its criticism of Moscow’s shortcomings on both grounds.