ОД "Русская версия": Opinion

In Russia, opinion polls are being used to cover up a divided society

Results saw 77% of voters support Russia’s referendum on amendments to the constitution. But these figures bear little relationship to Russians’ real attitudes to constitutional reform.

Greg Yudin
2 July 2020
Mikhail Maslennikov / ZAKS.ru

On 1 July, Russia finished voting on its constitutional referendum. This plebiscite will see, among other things, Vladimir Putin able to rule until 2036 through a constitutional change that will nullify the number of terms the president has served.

One result of the campaign is already clear, and it concerns public opinion polls. Surveys traditionally play a key role in Russian politics: they are effectively “daily plebiscites”, as polling industry founder George Gallup christened them. If not every day, then at least every week, opinion polls demonstrate the level of support enjoyed by president Putin and his policies, guaranteeing him legitimacy in return. After all, if these surveys do actually reflect the public mood and an overwhelming majority do support the Russian president, then there is no alternative to Putin, and his opponents are left demoralised.

Whether the polls reflect the will of the Russian people is another question, and an interesting one. It’s more accurate to say that opinion surveys manufacture public opinion. But what can be done if even “managed polling numbers” don’t contribute to the president’s legitimacy, but undermine it? When the political situation changes, opinion pollsters suddenly find themselves under enormous political pressure.

This was already clear last year, when the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) faced undeserved criticism from the presidential administration because the president’s ratings were worryingly low. In specialist polling circles, it’s well known that Putin’s popularity has been gradually falling over the past two years. It would be dangerous, however, to reveal this publicly, which is why VTsIOM had to keep trying to wiggle out of trouble, replacing one indicator with another - a clear sign of how polling agencies can produce the figures a client wants to see without necessarily falsifying them.

The situation has become even more complex in 2020. Against a backdrop of growing public fatigue with Vladimir Putin, the president decided to hold a vote in difficult circumstances, as well as effectively putting the question of his lifetime presidency on the line. How has the polling industry reacted to this?

In the three months since 10 March, the day that the last and most scandalous amendment to Russia’s constitution was announced, Russians have been left practically in the dark about their own reaction to the proposed reforms. All this time, the Public Opinion foundation (FOM) has not published anything on the constitutional amendments, and VTsIOM published openly confusing information – the mysterious “amendment ratings” where respondents were asked to judge how important each amendment was.

This was, of course, a meaningless polling question from a methodology point of view. Respondents don’t think in terms of “rating the amendments”, nor in terms of their “importance” – a construct that is impossible to interpret. (Example: if Ivan is categorically opposed to Putin being in power forever, is this an “important” amendment for him or not?) At the same time, this question fulfills another task - disorientation - all too well. Thus journalists did not consider the phrasing too closely, and pushed out headlines claiming that “the number of people supporting a nullification for Putin has risen”.

Anyone who has the faintest idea of how Russian pollsters work knows that surveys on key issues (attitudes to constitutional amendments and, separately, attitudes to resetting Putin’s term) take place regularly, and that this information is gathered at least at the regional level. Why then are the results not published? The assumption is clear: because their publication would give an extra measure of optimism to opponents of the reform and could lead to their mobilisation. Russians are, in fact, divided on constitutional reform - especially on whether Putin should rule for life - and we know this from rarely published survey results.

The Levada Center has published surveys to this effect, which found similar levels of support for resetting Putin’s term count and opposition to it (47-48% in both cases). The center, however, brings out its publications only rarely and with a clear delay – their first one here was only available three and a half weeks after the announcement about Putin’s reset – i.e. after politicians and the public had already formed their opinions and intentions. There were no new figures on the eve of the vote either. We can’t exclude the possibility that the Levada Center sees these results as dangerous. At the very least, the agency, which is under pressure from the Russian Ministry of Justice, is the last organisation which can be blamed for leaving the general public ignorant.

Other published surveys (a nationwide telephone poll by Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, and a Moscow street survey, conducted by the Russian Field agency, commanded by independent politician Roman Yuneman and paid for through crowdfunding) confirm this picture.

According to the telephone poll, more than 40% of those surveyed do not support Putin’s monarchical ambitions, while in Moscow this number is even higher (48% vs 40% supporting it). Street surveys are less reliable than telephone ones, although they are used successfully in political and marketing research. The professionals, of course, find the representativeness of street sampling less reliable. Yet if the Russian public had a reliable answer to the question of “What are people’s attitudes to the amendments in Moscow?”, then there would be no need for street surveys. But, as it stands, it doesn’t.

If surveys stop producing polling numbers that suit the Kremlin, then the rise in administrative pressure on the industry - and the ensuing rise of interest in polls by the public - could lead to a reformation in the Russian polling industry

The publication of voting forecasts by VTsIOM and INSOMAR seem comic at best. Both companies avoid revealing the most recent data on public voting intentions and immediately focus on predicting results. That way, they try to predict the official result, which could include any falsifications that take place. But we won’t know how their respondents have answered. Although the aura surrounding the survey companies creates the deceptive impression among the public that these forecasts are the results of actual surveys.

The winner in the manipulation race is, however, the ROMIR agency. In the text they published on the first day of voting in the referendum, we read that the popular attitude towards the amendments is 61% to 39%. And it takes a close look to see that the 61% included not only people who approve the changes, but also those who are neutral on the issue. This amazing figure has nothing solid behind it. If the attitude scale was broken down into three groups, there would be no reason to add the “neutrals” to those who support the amendments.

Moreover, ROMIR, at the request of the Vedomosti newspaper, revealed some disaggregated figures. It turned out that only 29% of those surveyed supported the changes, and 31% were neutral. And the supporters of the changes were only in the majority among the oldest age group – in other age groups, as in voters in general, they were in a minority.

The readers of Vedomosti, however, will not receive this information. The editor-in-chief removed the publication from the paper, just as he also removed already published material about the Russian Field poll. Vedomosti is in an odd situation at present, mired in internal conflict. However, the refusal by the new management of one of Russia’s major papers to publish these key figures merely confirms that right now considerable efforts are being made to hide the division in Russian society - and which comes through in survey data.

Public opinion polls provide information that has significant public interest. We can have different views on their results and different interpretations of this information. They should, however, be available to the public. Today, a significant proportion of published surveys deliberately hide the fact that the referendum figures will not represent Russian citizens’ preferences as reflected in the surveys themselves.

The latest confirmation of this fact is a study by Sergey Belanovsky. Several aspects of his methodology also require additional explanation, but his results match those of ROMIR: 28% of those surveyed are planning to vote for the constitutional amendments, and 32% against. It’s obvious that this information influences both the behaviour of voters and the level of their trust in the voting process. (Vladimir Putin has emphasised on several occasions that he doesn’t just need numbers, but he needs numbers that guarantee him legitimacy.)

Survey companies working for the Kremlin produce surveys using public funds, and so are obliged to reveal their results to the public. The fact that the people ordering the polls might formally be foundations set up by the state has no effect on the results.

If the present political trends continue in Russia, the Kremlin will have to take a more defensive position, and there will be more pressure than ever on the polling industry. Radical options such as bans on polls, as is the case in Belarus, are impossible in Russia. But the introduction of strict rules forcing poll results to be published only selectively and only when they support the president’s legitimacy are a very real prospect.

In this situation, it’s time to remember the original meaning of the concept of “public opinion” (which is translated into Russian as “societal opinion”). In European languages, from where it came to Russia, it means “a publicly expressed opinion” or “the opinion of the public”. The public has more interest than anyone in public opinion being voiced - and to know what it is. Which is why in many countries, polls are run by the main public institutions – the media.

In Russia, this practice, which was already in existence 20 years ago, has only just begun to be revived, and is rapidly becoming an important tool for attracting an audience and communicating with it. Another tool, which has practically just appeared during this campaign, is polls financed through crowdfunding - such as those paid for by the followers of Roman Yuneman and Sergey Belanovsky. They managed to collect funds for these surveys in very tight time frames, and without even using mass campaigns - this speaks to a clear public demand for understanding the mood in Russian society.

If surveys stop producing polling numbers that suit the Kremlin, then the rise in administrative pressure on the industry - and the ensuing rise of interest in polls by the public - could lead to a reformation in the Russian polling industry. The battle for public opinion will be heating up very soon, and the public is gradually becoming an important player in it - rather than just a passive object of observation.

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