Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Bridging Current Divide between Russians and Georgians Will Be Hard, Polls Suggest

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 17 – Some in Moscow and Tbilisi are beginning to consider ways in which people from the two countries might begin the kind of conversations that could allow them to find a modus Vivendi after the recent war, but new polls in both suggest that bridging the divide between the two is going to be difficult if not impossible in the short term.
Today, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a poll agency reputed to have close ties to the Russian government, released the results of two polls, one conducted in the Russian Federation and the other in Georgia, concerning experiences and attitudes in each (
In their assessment of the impact of the war on Georgian-Russian relations, 39 percent of Russians and 37 percent of Georgians said that current problems would be overcome, and only 10 percent of Russians and six percent of Georgians said that ties between the two countries had been broken forever, clearly a basis for confidence building measures.
Moreover, 69 percent of Russians and 71 percent of Georgians that they had not changed their attitudes toward members of the other nationality, although every fourth Russian and almost every fifth Georgian said that his or her views of members of the other nationality had become more negative.
But if the war had relatively little impact on people’s attitudes about members of the other nation, the two polls showed, the conflict did have a major impact on their views of the other state: 50 percent of Russians said they had a more negative attitude toward Georgia as a state and 64 percent of Georgians had a more negative one of the Russian state.
Regarding the future, 42 percent of Russians felt that the best path for Georgia would be “a union with Russia,” a view only 11 percent of Georgians shared. In a related measure, 30 percent of Russians said that neutrality would be a good choice for Georgia, a position that 39 percent of Georgians agreed with.
While 63 percent of the Russian sample had a negative view of NATO, more than half of the Georgian sample – 52 percent – backs that idea, with younger people (those aged between 18 and 24) and those with higher and incomplete higher education supporting membership in the alliance more frequently.
And the VTsIOM poll suggested that the two countries are growing apart in terms of experience as well as attitudes. Approximately 10 percent of all Georgians have lived in Russia at some point, and half of them have been in Russia. But among those 18 to 24, very few have lived in Russia and 90 percent say they have never visited that foreign country.
Moreover, while half of the Georgians taking part in the poll said they had Georgian acquaintances or relatives living in Russia and a third said they had acquaintances there who were members of other nationalities, including Russians, two out of every three Georgians reported that they had no such friends or acquaintances.
Obviously, these patterns do not preclude contacts between Georgians and Russians at various levels and in various forums, but they do represent a kind of constraint on such activities that anyone seeking to promote them, be they Russians or Georgians or friends of one or the other side, must take into consideration.
The Russian invasion of Georgia clearly represents a defining moment in the relationship between the two states and the two peoples, and unless those who want to see a dialogue begin act with great care, the current division between the sides is likely to deepen, with today’s problems becoming greater however difficult the pursuit of an alternate path forward may be.

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