Russian public opinion and the Georgia war

Alexei Levinson
14 August 2009

The anniversary of an event is a time to remember. In the case of the war that began in the Caucasus this time last year, on 8 August, we risk returning to it not in memory, but in reality. The pundits rate the likelihood of another war at 50%, or even 80%. By the time this article appears we will know what has become of these predictions.

The opinions of ordinary citizens of the Russian Federation were not a decisive factor in Russia's policy in the Caucasus, let alone the war. But a significant number of Russians, and sometimes the majority, agreed with the policymakers.

Recent research by the Levada Center showed that both experts and "ordinary people" were firmly of the view that neither Georgia nor Russia needs a war right now. People were saying the same a year ago, on the eve of the war. But the rational arguments and common sense considerations of those who wanted a peaceful solution for the sake of all parties were overwhelmed by a different logic. It is important to understand this logic, because it is clearly this, not arguments about what the peoples "need" or "do not need", which will determine events now.

The logic of the war parties

We can suppose that Mikhail Saakashvili wanted a "small victorious war" in order to strengthen support for himself domestically. We can suppose that the behaviour of the South Ossetian leaders was similarly motivated. But this supposition does not remotely explain the actions of the Russian side. And it was these that transformed this conflict from a local incident in the Caucasus into an event that changed international politics, both in the Caucasus and in Russia itself.

The Russian leadership did not need a war to support its popularity. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's approval ratings at that time were extremely high in August 2008 (80% and 70% respectively)[1]. The successful war did mobilise public feelings in Russia, but to what purpose? There was no obvious reason for doing so.

There is a theory that the start of the second Chechen campaign in 1999 helped the previously unknown Putin gain popular support. Our data from public opinion surveys at the time shows that this theory, although it seems convincing, is not correct. But even if it were, in 2008 Putin did not need a war with Georgia, as he was not running for election. As for Medvedev, he had already been elected president, and like Putin before him, he enjoyed the support of the absolute majority of Russians (70% in May 2008) before he had had time to earn it.

As with any event in society, there were many causes for the war. One year on, the policy of the Georgian leadership (35%), and a US desire to trigger a rift between Georgia and Russia" (34%) are seen as the main ones[i]. But another theory is being discussed quietly, one which links the event to reactions of public opinion.

Handling liberal expectations

Long before the war, when Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov were being touted for the role of Putin's successor, our surveys noted that while both nominees had equal numbers of supporters, they were of different kinds. In Russia's political tradition, supreme power (then represented by Vladimir Putin) does not have a definite political character. It may be authoritarian or liberal. It may make pro-western or anti-western gestures. There are about as many people who think that during his presidency Putin successfully "defended democracy and political freedoms in the country" as those who think the opposite. What remains constant is that power is made up of two parties, which identify themselves clearly with one of the two vectors.

In the choice between Ivanov and Medvedev, the public wanted to see representatives of these two vectors. Medvedev was regarded as having liberal tendencies, although he had yet to demonstrate his adherence to a liberal path. Any signs he did make were immediately balanced out with opposite signs. But after his election, the dichotomy was transferred to a new duo: the prime minister and president. Indirect signs lead us to believe that certain elites began to see liberal tendencies in Medvedev.

The position of those sectors of Russian business which showed an interest in political liberalisation can be ignored, as they are in no position to protect their interests. But as some of our respondents put it, the move from the "policy of Putin" to the imagined "policy of Medvedev" - imagined as an alternative! - was also followed in 2008 by some people who have not only the capital, but the political resources too. Supporters of liberal policy could also clearly count on significant international support. According to our respondents, the people who really run the country made a tough decision. Everyone whose hopes lay in this direction had to be given a clear signal: Medvedev is not an alternative to Putin, and he will not offer any different policy. The signal they gave was the war.

The death of liberal hopes

The result was dramatic. In May 2007 17% of Russians thought that Putin's successor would "gradually change political policy" and 5% thought that he would pursue "a completely new policy". But after the events of August 2008, these opinions were only held by 7% and 2% respectively.

People's opinions have not changed today. The lesson has been learned. Those who expected a "thaw" realised that they would have to wait. Medvedev, betraying the hopes of all those who had dreamed of seeing a liberal and democrat in him, took the path (perhaps against his own will, which only made it more effective) that Russian leaders have not dared to tread since troops entered Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. These precedents had shown there was no risk of a response military strike from the West, and there was nothing else to be afraid of. The subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in defiance of the world, was a way of making the situation irreversible.

The dividend in defying Western opinion

During the years of Gorbachev's presidency, Russian politicians and the public paid a lot of attention to Western opinion. In the Yeltsin period, Vladimir Zhirinovsky made an important discovery on the Russian political scene. With his many speeches, he showed that in Russia one can oppose Western opinion, and this will not only go unpunished. It will give the politician a political dividend, and please people too.

In the Putin years, the political elite and society learned this lesson. While being fully aware of what the world considered to be right and wrong, Russians were prepared to choose (at least in words) the latter. The position taken by the Russian leadership after the war had been "processed" by the mass conscience long before this. If in 2005, 27% of Russians believed that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should become independent nations, even more (36%) said that they should become part of Russia. Only 15% thought they should be returned to Georgia. Shortly before the war, in March 2008, the distribution of opinions was virtually unchanged: 26% were for independence, 33% for joining Russia. But the percentage of those saying that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be returned to Georgia dropped to 11%. (There was an increase in the number of people who said they did not know).

Politicians and the public also agreed on their attitude to the West's reaction. A poll we carried out a month after the end of the five-day war asked the following question: "Do you think that the sanctions western countries are threatening to impose on Russia in response to its policy in Georgia could have a serious influence on Russia?" 30% replied "yes", while 53% replied "no".


[1] Here and subsequently data is given from regular surveys by Levada Center among 1,600 people representing the population of the Russian Federation aged 18 and up.


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