What do Russians think of their ‘foreign agents’?

In Putin’s Russia, NGOs funded from abroad are now officially considered ‘foreign agents’. However a recent poll suggests that the Russian public’s attitude to them is rather less one-sided. Vladimir Zvonovsky reports from Samara. 

Vladimir Zvonovsky
8 February 2013

Ever since the Russian parliament passed its controversial anti-NGO law, forcing any NGO receiving funding from abroad to register as a ‘foreign agent’, discussion on the subject has centred on the use of the term. One side stressed the strictly negative connotation of the word ‘foreign’ in the Russian culture. In the first place, the term implies ‘not one of us’, ‘alien’; if not ‘hostile’ then certainly ‘unfriendly’. In the second, in the Soviet era any suggestion that someone had a link with a foreign country would mean at least their deportation, and more often their death.

Opponents of this ‘traditional’ way of thinking rightly note that such a diametrical opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was only possible within the Soviet framework of a fairly rigid ideology, underpinned by fixed socio-political practice. Today, when neither the practice nor the ideology behind it exists any more, Russia suffers from a lack of any common identity that would create national unity. So the boundaries between ‘Russian’ and ‘foreign’ are also very fluid, uncertain and they vary between different social groups.

Why ‘foreign’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’  

A study carried out back in 2001 showed that the Russian public and Russia’s political and media elite have quite different attitudes to the USA and the West in general. It showed that ordinary Russians think their own ruling classes are more closely connected to their global, and especially western, counterparts than they are to their own voters. To put it bluntly, the Russian man and woman in the street regard their own political elites as a sort of a branch of world government (with its centre in Washington, of course).

This hypothesis ought in theory to produce a tolerant attitude to foreign institutions being involved in everyday life in Russia, provided their involvement could be seen to be beneficial. After all, it need not mean the presence of actual foreigners or their organisations, let alone anything more invasive. It could be just a question of copying or importing individual social institutions, norms and functions into Russian practice, in part by means of foreign agents, i.e. NGOs funded from abroad. This could, for example, involve the training of election observers, a look at ways for consumers to monitor the quality of retail products, or campaigns to improve the rights of disabled people, women or children. 

In this scenario any person’s ‘foreign agent’ status should not stigmatise him or her in the eyes of the Russian public, but, on the contrary, could even act as a ‘trademark’, signifying the high quality of their functioning (like a car or a computer). And the functioning of Russia state social institutions would be recognised as ineffective by comparison.

Last year our Centre (the Social Research Fund) undertook a two stage computer-assisted survey among a representative sample of residents of the Volga city of Tolyatti. We interviewed 500 people in total, first in July and then returning in November. The sample was divided into two subgroups.

The first subgroup, Group A, was asked "who does more to uphold the rule of law in Russia: governmental law enforcement agencies (police, the courts, the Public Prosecutor’s department) or civil rights and environmental NGOs?’ For the other subgroup, Group B the idea of 'foreign' involvement was introduced. The question they were asked was: "who does more to uphold the rule of law in our country today: Russian law enforcement agencies (police, the courts, the Public Prosecutor’s department) or foreign governments that finance civil rights and environmental NGOs?’

Just over a third of Group B answered in favour of Russian law enforcers, while on the other hand 12% believed that foreign governments had a more positive influence. In other words, for every three respondents who were confident in the effectiveness of their own government, one believed that foreign governments did a better job. The remaining 53% were recorded as ‘don’t knows’ (further analysis revealed that many of this group didn’t believe anyone was doing anything to uphold the rule of law in Russia). You might have thought that, of all Russian government agencies, those responsible for law enforcement ought to have been considered highly competitive in their field. But as we see here, a significant proportion of the sample believe that there are some areas of life where organisations representing civic society and supported by foreign governments are not only useful but also more effective than their own country’s governmental institutions. All of this despite the belief in a centralised state so ingrained in Russian mass consciousness, about which so much has been written and which is so obvious to the observer.

In Group A, the subgroup asked to choose between ‘law enforcement agencies’ and ‘NGOs’ (i.e. without any reference to foreign governments), the ratio of responses was less, 2:1. The number of respondents supporting their own agencies remained about the same, at 36%, but the number of NGO supporters rose to 17%, with a corresponding decrease in the ranks of ‘don’t knows’. In other words, he effect of the terms ‘foreign agents’ and ‘foreign governments’ was evidently significant and negative in its connotations for some of those polled. But another conclusion tells a different story — a significant number of Tolyatti residents still believe that foreign governments are more effective in upholding the rule of law in Russia, i.e. a sector where, formally at least, Russian state agencies and government should have unlimited sovereignty.

‘A significant proportion [of those polled] believed that there were spheres of everyday life where organisations supported by foreign governments were not only useful but also more effective than their own country’s governmental institutions.’

For the second stage of the survey, in November 2012, the entire sample of 500 people was asked the question containing the word ‘foreign’, since this version was more likely to polarise opinions. This time, the proportion of respondents who thought that foreign governments were more effective in upholding the rule of law in Russia remained at 12%, but the number of those who trusted Russia’s internal agencies had risen significantly, from 35% to 43%.

Around the time of this second poll, President Putin had just sacked his Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, ostensibly in connection with a corruption scandal at his ministry. It is likely that his dismissal and investigation had a positive effect on the public’s perception of Russia’s law enforcement system. But even so, it didn’t change attitudes to foreign influences.

Looking at specific groups within the sample, the proportion of respondents who were also active users of social networks seemed to show a greater rise in trust of law enforcement than those who were not active online. The percentage who were confident of Russian law enforcers’ commitment to upholding the rule of law rose from 34% to 46%, whereas there was no statistically significant change among non-users (36% in July, 40% in November). Presumably, the information published on such online networks between July and November had a significant effect on those polled.

The poll results hold good for other Russian cities

In December 2012 we carried out a similar poll in Samara, the Volga regional capital, and our results were not significantly different from those in neighbouring Tolyatti. Again, about one in eight of respondents (12%) thought that foreign governments had a more positive effect on the rule of law in Russia than its own law enforcement system, while 42% held the opposite opinion. This comparative evaluation has allowed us to conclude that these results are typical for Russia as a whole.

To further unpack our evaluation we can use a comparative effectiveness index, which records the ratio of those who consider Russian agencies more effective to those who favour ‘foreign agents’. If the index number is more than 1, it means that the ‘yes’s’ outnumber the ‘no’s’. If it is less than 1, the opposite is the case. In the Tolyatti poll the overall index number is 3.5; i.e. for every two government supporters there are seven supporters of civil society. Among young people the index number is lower, 2.26. There is a clear difference in attitudes between men and women (4.08 and 3.08 respectively). This probably suggests that State law enforcement agencies are least effective in cases where everyday civil rights are infringed: the rights of consumers and children, labour rights – areas particularly affecting women and young people. 

Both state employees (4.08) and pensioners (4.00) come out in support of the law enforcers, but those for those in the private and municipal sectors the index numbers are lower than the average (3.09 and 2.54 respectively). On the other hand, employees of AvtoVAZ, Russia’s largest carmaker and the city’s main work provider, give the state agencies a significantly higher than average rating – 5.78. We may assume that the factory staff look to the state to uphold their rights and are appreciative of the work of the police.

In summary, though there are some differences in the socio-demographic structure of the comparative evaluation in Samara and Tolyatti, the results are broadly the same. In both cities NGOs polled reasonably well, though the Russian state was clearly trusted more than so-called 'foreign agents'. On the other hand, anything other than 100% confidence in the Russian state might justifiably be interpreted as a certain disloyalty and a vote of distrust towards the state. Appreciation of the ‘foreign agents’, meanwhile, was clearly stronger among certain social groups — among under-30s, business owners, housewives on a low income and the highly educated — whereas the Russian law enforcers have a higher rating among managers, older people, men, middle-income groups and pensioners.

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