Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russians’ Views on Ethnic Relations Said to Reflect Their Feelings about Themselves

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 18 – A poll released this week shows that Russians believe inter-ethnic relations are improving in their country, a view that one regional politician suggests says less about objective reality in the Russian Federation than it does about how much better Russians feel about themselves as a nation.
Yesterday, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a polling agency known for its close ties to the government, released figures showing that the share of Russians who believe that inter-ethnic tensions are intensifying has fallen from 41 percent in 2005 to 24 percent now (
Over the same period, VTsIOM reported, the share of those who felt that relations among the country’s ethnic groups had become better rose from 17 percent to 27 percent, while the fraction saying these interactions had not changed recently increased from 35 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in the most recent survey.
Despite these overall positive assessments, the pollsters found that the share of Russians with negative views toward immigrants has risen since 2005 to 68 percent for the country as a whole and to 75 percent in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Over the same period, the share having a positive view of immigrants fell from 21 percent to 15 percent.
Many commentators will be inclined to treat these figures as one more indication that the situation in Russia is truly improving or that the regime’s tight control over the electronic media, which seldom cover ethnic clashes, is promoting an image of the situation in the minds of Russians that is at odds with reality.
But a third and much more interesting interpretation has been offered by Vladimir Timakov, a deputy in the Tula oblast legislative assembly. In his view, the new VTsIOM figures are credible and do reflect a significant change inside the country – but not a change in the nature of the relationship among its various national groups (
Timakov told the nationalist Russian Orthodox portal Russkaya liniya today that the new poll shows “not that inter-ethnic relations have really improved” in Russia since 2005 but rather that “the feelings of the residents of Russia, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, have changed” in what he sees as entirely positive way.
Russians no longer feel “that we live in an occupied country where Russians are subject to oppression,” he said. Instead, the Russian government is reflecting Russian values, with “the word ‘Russian’ appearing freely and often, and patriotism now the official ideology” of the Russian state.
More important still, he continued, “all those campaigns connected with ‘Russian fascism,’ xenophobia, the murder of aliens and so on in the last year or year and a half” that have filled the media are being dismissed by most Russians because “internally, Russians feel themselves stronger, more at peace, and more confident in their own country.”
Timakov’s words are important if not entirely welcome. They are a reminder that data routinely used to support one interpretation of Russian reality may in fact support quite a different one. And more immediately, they suggest that the opinion of the Russian majority about relations with non-Russian minorities may be more self-serving than accurate.

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