Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Reported Levels of Popular Support for Russian Leaders Don’t Mean what Most Commentators Think, Levada Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 2 – Commentators in Moscow and the West frequently cite poll results to suggest that Russia’s leaders, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, enjoy broad popular trust and support, but a Levada Center expert says they are misusing the data because what the polls show is “a completely different social phenomenon.”
That phenomenon, Levada’s Boris Dubin says in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” does not indicate support but rather is the result of a massive denial of initiative and a recognition that the majority (from three-fifths to three-quarters) of Russian adults cannot do or influence anything and have handed over initiative to the top leaders” (
“In Russian political culture,” the Levada Center expert says an examination of the poll results his organization has obtained over the years, “the right to take initiative in the minds of most belongs to those who stand above them [in one hierarchy or another] and as a limit to the very highest people” in the state.
When Russians say they “approve” the actions of such high-ranking people, he continues, they are expressing not trust or support but rather “the level of correspondence” between “the figure who from morning to night is shown on television” with the expectations, illusions, fears and habits which the majority of the population has.”
And consequently, what the 70 percent or more who give a positive answer are really saying is that “’Yes, we are accustomed to that image of power. It is normal, and we do not have any demands to it, in this sense.’” Indeed, he continues, this pattern reflects a special Russian understanding of “freedom.”
“It turns out that [freedom] in the opinion of the majority of [Russians] is found much more where the state serves as the protector of the citizen, including in the economic sphere, when it controls prices, pay and pensions” and where it does so without showing or showing only rarely much “attention” to the population.
Underlying that, Dubin continues, freedom for Russians “is connected not only with social or political arrangements but with the nature of the individual himself, with his priorities and his understanding of both the other and of himself,” a set of views that help to explain why Russians show support for those who do not objectively serve their interests.
Such “negative freedom,” he says, has two major causes: the poverty of the Russian population, few of whom save and thus most of whom are dependent on having the powers that be provide for them, and what is more important, “the lack of the ability to stand on one’s own and be independent” and at the same time “the lack of solidarity and a deficit of [social] ties.”
As a result, “three quarters of the population” does not see itself as having any influence on the social and political “space beyond the walls of its own home.” And thus it is prepared to adapt to “hyper control from above even in the current softened form” and thus not have the expectations or make the demands that some observers often say Russians should.
Importantly, Dubin points out, this is not just about control exercised from above but also a kind of control from below, “a habit at the level of the masses,” who simply accept it and are not interested in any change. But such attitudes are not held by the entire population, as recent events have shown.
From 20 to 30 percent of the Russian people, Dubin says, have a different view. They are not prepared to accept “passively” that order which 70 percent of the population does silently.” They want change and they could be mobilized on the basis of their interests, something that the majority probably cannot be.
Moscow’s calls for modernization provide evidence of this. Most people are for it. After all, Dubin says, “who could be against, but not with our efforts, not involving us, and not here.” And thus Russian politics becomes not about the present but about a past few want to take responsibility for and a future for which no one in fact yet has to.
Summing up, Dubin notes that social scientists seldom pay much attention to situations like that in Russia where the system works badly but from which few intend to leave. Thus, they seldom ask why people feel that there is no reason to seek an escape in large measure because they do not see any alternative program to believe in or place to escape to.
But the Levada Center analyst says, the number of Russians is growing who in recent times say that “over the last two years in the country freedom, justice, legality, order, and solidarity have become less and that there is almost a complete lack of trust.” And “at the same time, for the first time in the last decade, there have been more manifestations of civic activity.”
Consequently, while most of those manifestations have been about immediate and local interests, they are spreading, something that may ultimately mean that ever more Russians are redefining by their own actions what they understand by freedom and democracy and what they see as their own rights with respect to the powers that be.

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