Vienna, August 29 – Russians, according to all recent polls, overwhelmingly support what Moscow has done in Georgia, but many of those sampled do not believe Moscow “won” there at least when compared to other participants, an indication that this public support may be softer than the Kremlin clearly expects or that Western media routinely report.
Moreover, announcements by Russian officials that the Western response to Moscow’s invasion and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is likely to lead to higher prices for Russian consumers, threaten the country’s economic modernization, and make foreign travel more difficult could erode Russian support for the Kremlin’s policies.
And in an indication that some in the Russian government are worried about that possibility, the communications ministry there has announced that it is drafting a new law that will push the media there to shift from “the propaganda of personal freedoms and wealth to the affirmation of a new cult of health, patriotism and a ‘socially responsible’ way of life.”
Typical of the polls showing Russian support for Moscow’s policies is one conducted by the Levada Center. In response to its query as to whether Russia had behaved correctly by getting involved in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict on the Ossetian side, 87 percent of the sample said that Moscow had been right to do so (www.levada.ru/press/2008082701.html).
But the same survey found that only 27 percent said that Russia had “won out” in this conflict, with 25 percent saying no one had, 19 percent saying that the United States had, 17 percent saying the leadership of South Ossetia had, and 11 percent saying that NATO had, an indication that Russians have doubts on whether this course of action has worked to their benefit.
(Intriguingly, when asked how they expected the current tensions between Russia and the West to play out, 48 percent said they thought that relations would “gradually return to what they had been before this incident, while 35 percent said they expected tensions to grow possibly into “a new Cold War.”)
Meanwhile, another poll found that a third of Russians believe that there is a high probability that major clashes will resume between Russian and Georgian forces, an increase of six percent over the last week and a possibility that could either cause more Russians to back the Kremlin or more to question its policies (www.polit.ru/research/2008/08/28/fom34.html).
But potentially more serious drivers of shifts in Russian public opinion on this issue are statements by officials and analysts that Aleksey Usov of the “Novyy Region” news service summarized as pointing to what he suggested may be a significant “worsening of the level of life of Russians themselves” (http://www.nr2.ru/economy/193455.html).
The West’s indication that it will put off Russia’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Moscow’s response that it will selectively suspend some of the agreements it had reached with the WTO as part of the admissions process will send prices for meat and other goods up at least in the short term, officials say.
Russia will be able to compensate for that after some months, agriculture minister Aleksey Gordeyev said yesterday, but some of the other consequences of the worsening of relations between Russia and the West are going to be far more difficult for the Russian government and ordinary Russians to cope with.
On the one hand, Russian firms are likely to find it far more difficult to attract foreign investors or to secure foreign financing, something that at the very least will make it more difficult for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to modernize and diversity his country’s economy beyond the oil and gas sector.
And on the other, the new rise in East-West tensions is likely to lead to a tightening of visa regimes and a significant delay in talks for visa free travel to European Union countries and thus make it far more difficult for Russians to travel abroad, something that many of them identify as one of the chief gains resulting from the end of the Soviet Union.
Not surprisingly, the Russian government has decided to counter such arguments by launching a new ideological campaign. Today, the communications ministry announced that it is preparing a new law that would encourage media outlets to end their “propaganda of personal freedom and wealth” (www.nr2.ru/society/193587.html).
Instead, ministry officials will urge media outlets to promote “a cult of health, patriotism, and ‘a socially responsible’ way of life,” thus reorienting the views of Russians who have been subject “for almost 20 years to the cult of money, success and petty bourgeois comfort” as the highest goals.
The officials stressed that this campaign would be “voluntary,” but they pointedly suggested that those media outlets that went along could count on government support while those that don’t will be subject to the closest official scrutiny, yet another tightening of the screws on Russia’s already hard-pressed media outlets.