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So what do Russia’s people think?

In the first of his regular monthly reports for odRussia, Alexei Levinson of Russia’s prestigious Levada Centre offers a round-up of Russian public opinion at the start of 2010. Even when the economic crisis lead people to judge their government, he notes, approval of Prime Minister Putin remained high. Nor do people seem particularly bothered by Russia’s imaginary elections
Alexei Levinson
3 March 2010

At the end of January – early February 2010, the Levada Centre conducted a survey among a representative selection of Russian citizens aged 18 and over in 127 cities and towns in 46 regions of the country.[1]

The majority (46%) feel that “things are going in the right direction” (30% disagree). 58% of people under 25 agree, and 67% of students.  The number is lower for older respondents. Among the lower income group and residents of small towns, the dominant feeling is that “the country is going the wrong way”.  Managers mainly approve of the way the country is going, but businessmen are more critical.

The crisis

Approximately 58% of Russians said that the crisis had “seriously” affected their lives.  In the lower income group this figure rises to 78%.  Least affected are public sector workers and pensioners: civil servants and specialists (less than 50%) and pensioners (52%).   41% of Russians are worse off (13% are better off, again mainly those connected with the public sector). But the majority believes the worst is already over and that Russia will soon begin to recover from the crisis.

President and Prime Minister

From the beginning of Putin’s presidency, Russians have not made a connection between approval of his activities and the situation inside the country, so even during the crisis years his approval rating never fell below 65%. Now 78% approve of what he is doing as prime minister, though only 54% approve of the work of his government.

President Medvedev has also had a high rating from the beginning, although less than Putin. At present, approval levels for Medvedev’s work stand at 75%. These figures might indicate that Medvedev is “catching up” with Putin, but in total only 23% believe he acts independently.  63% believe he is “under the control of Putin and his circle”, 13% believe he is gradually changing tack and just 3% (0% among officials) believe Medvedev is pursuing a completely new line of policy. Only 15% believe that he holds the real power in the country, while twice as many believe that Putin holds the power. The most frequent response (44%) is that the power is shared by both equally.

Imaginary elections

There is much discussion about who will become the next president in 2012. The public is almost reconciled to the fact that it does not elect the president. But respondents appear not to  object to “playing” at real elections. Putin received 28% of votes, and Medvedev 18%. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky together received less than 7%, and another five names taken together received less than 2%.

Imaginary parliamentary elections also yielded predictable results. United Russia received 42% of the vote – almost twice as many as the other six parties put together. In second place was the Communist Party (11%), LDPR came third (7%), and A Fair Russia came fourth (4%). Yabloko received less than 1%, and Right Cause 0%. These results cannot be considered accidental. When a similar question was asked several months ago, the percentages were the same. The political system, which in the past decade had some chance of reflecting voter interests, has practically disappeared.  This is the result of pressure from outside and internal social developments. Is society prepared in the foreseeable future to live under a system very like the Communist Party monopoly of Soviet times?  This remains an open question.

The public no longer trusts the political figures of theYeltsin era. There were some 30 names on the list, again not counting Medvedev and Putin. Shoigu, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky were the only figures whom around 10% of respondents said they trusted. The rest earned 4% or less. Significantly, Gorbachev, Khakamada, Ryzhkov, Khodorkovsky, Nemtsov and Yavlinsky garnered only about 5% of votes between them.                                                                                                                                                                               

A change in the role of institutions

There have been considerable changes in public life and social consciousness since Russia started building a democratic system. Changing attitudes to various institutions in public life, as reflected in surveys over the last ten years, serve as some illustration of these changes.

The table below shows ratings for 17 different institutions as seen by Russians at the start of Putin’s first presidency (2001), his second presidency (2005) and at the start of Medvedev’s presidency (2010). The answers are arranged according to the 2001 order of distribution.

 

 

2001

2005

2010

President

1

1

1

“Oligarchs”, bankers,

financiers

2

2

3

Government

3

6

2

Media

4

4

8

Regional governors

5

8

9

Directors of major companies

6

10

14

Armed forces

7

7

6

FSB

8

3

5

Federation Council

9

13

10

The Church

10

11

12

Presidential administration

11

5

4

Prosecutor’s office

12

9

7

State Duma

13

14

13

Judiciary

14

12

11

Political parties

15

15

15

Intelligentsia

16

16

16

Trade unions

17

17

17

In each of the three surveys, the role of the president remains most important in people’s minds. When the questions were first devised, the figure of the prime minister was not significant, and researchers decided to retain the original format in the later surveys, in order to preserve the validity of the comparison. 

The institutions which people considered to be least important in Russia were political parties, the intelligentsia and the trade unions. They were rated last in all three surveys. It should be noted that Russians did consider the role of “United Russia” – an organization created to be the “party of power” -    to be important (see below). But they evidently do not regard it as a political party in the commonly accepted sense of the term.

Parliament, where the political parties should in principle be represented, is also given a low assessment. The State Duma (lower chamber) and the Federation Council (higher chamber) consistently occupy places at the bottom of the top ten or lower.

During the period under consideration regional governors fell from 5th to 9th place in popular estimation of their importance. So did heads of companies (from 6th to 14th place) and the media (from 4th to 8th place).  The role of the Presidential Administration increased dramatically (from 11th to 4th). Putin’s alma mater, the FSB rose from 8th to 5th place, and the office of the Prosecutor General, which during this period became the main punitive institution rose from 12th to 7th place. 

The authority of the Chuch rose slightly over this period. But what is clear from these surveys is that the means through which society is able to exert influence on the government are becoming progressively less important in people’s estimation, whereas the means whereby  government controls society are gaining importance.

A more detailed study was made in the survey of the public’s attitude to two institutions of power – the army and the police.

The army

Attitudes to the army were already complicated in the late Soviet era. The public has on several occasions objected to the excess of violence in the army (hazing and the harassment of soldiers by officers). People are clear that the unwieldy conscript army needs to be reformed.  But there have been no radical reforms. Its organisation remains as it was in Soviet times.  In the latest survey, 50% of Russian citizens support the demand to “reduce the million-strong army”.

On the whole, people find it difficult to see why Russia actually needs an army. The majority believe that there will not been “armed conflict with a neighbouring country” this year. However, the question as to whether Russia is militarily threatened by other countries received a response that is on the whole affirmative (47%).  It seems that this reflects people’s sense not so much that there is a real threat, but rather an assumption that some notion of a threat is an essential pre-requisite, in order to justify the existence of the army. Russian society regards  the army as essential, our research shows, but not so much to fight wars as to provide an ideal, as well as an institution for socialisation. Life in Russia without a symbolic military, male presence is simply unimaginable for the majority of Russian men and women, primarily in the older generation.

However, 57% of those surveyed believe that it is better not to end up in the army in its present form (mainly because of hazing). In response to a second question, 42% were of the view that if any of their family members were called up, they would “look for ways to avoid military service”.

The police

The so-called law-enforcement agencies have long been regarded by society “with apprehension” (67%). 30% trust them. 81% took a serious view of the problem of “lawlessness and abuse” by these agencies.  Two thirds of people in Russia (and among youths of 18 and over, three quarters) believe that they or their families could suffer at the hands of these agencies. Only 15% consider themselves protected. Approximately 25% believe they would be defended by the courts and the prosecutor’s office if they fell foul of the police.  Twice as many believe that they would not be.

Reports of crimes committed by employees of the Interior Ministry that have appeared in the press are a “sign of the disintegration of the Russian police, which can no longer be concealed”, according to 62% of Russians. This is evidently the “public outcry” cited by the Russian president as one of the main motives for his recently announced reforms to the Interior Ministry.

Shrovetide and Lent

Before Maslenitsa (Shrovetide) and Lent, Russian citizens were asked whether they intended to observe the traditions and rituals of the period. 79% said they intended to “cook pancakes during Shrovetide”, while 73% said they intended to “keep to their normal diet during the days of the fast”.

The Levada centre team began working at the end of the 1980s. Since that time, it has been conducting regularly monthly surveys.

 


[1] The margin of error is no more than 3.4%. The distribution of responses to some questions in the study is given in percentages of the total number of people surveyed overall, or within the limits of the indicated social demographic category.

 

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