Category Archives: Opinion polls

Poll: Russians Want Return of Soviet Rule

A new poll from the Levada Centre brings a result that will no doubt shock some in the West: 49% of Russians would like a return to Soviet government, of the type Russia had until 1991, whereas only 16% would like Western-style democracy (column on the far right below – support for Soviet system shown in red, for the current system in Russia in orange, and for Western-style democracy in blue. Black is ‘other’, and grey is ‘difficult to reply’).

As you can see from the column on the left, Levada has been doing this poll since 1996 and this is the highest ever level of support registered for Soviet-style government. Meanwhile, support for Western-style democracy is well down from its peak in the late 90s and early 00s. Support for the current system has never been desperately high apart from a blip in February 2008 (hopes of change under Medvedev???) and another in March 2015 (post-Crimean bump). But the current system is still more popular than in the 1990s, whereas the opposite is true of Western democracy.

In an article for RT (see here), I discuss how age differences factor into this, as seen in this chart:

As you can see, younger folk are much less pro-Soviet and much more pro-Western. Does that mean that 30 years from now the Russian population will have moved in that direction? Not necessarily. As I say in the article, the 55+ age group contains all the folk who were in their 20s and 30s in the perestroika era and the early 1990s and who were probably the most liberal, most pro-Western generation Russia has ever produced, before or since. These are the types who turned out en masse in Moscow to support Lithuanian independence, who voted en bloc for Boris Yeltsin, and who even gave liberal parties some 30% of the vote in the 1993 Duma elections (unthinkable today). So they weren’t all Sovoks from the start, hating liberal democracy and the West. Something happened along the way. Who knows what will happen to the current 18-24 somethings.

The poll contains a couple of other interesting charts. First there’s this one, which shows whether people would prefer Russia to be a ‘great power’ or to be a country with a good standard of living. As I say in the article, it’s a dumb question, presenting the two as polar opposites, when in fact they are mutually dependent (a richer population = a richer, more powerful state). The fact that Levada presents the two as opposed tells us a lot about its own biases. Still, here it is. Make of it what you will (preference for great power status is in red; preference for high standard of living is in blue – Russians prefer the latter, but let’s face it, who doesn’t?).

Finally, there’s this chart, which shows responses to the question ‘What economic system seems the most correct to you?’ Red is support for an economy based on ‘planning and redistribution’, blue is support for an economy based on ‘private property and market relations’. As you can see, most Russians are economic lefties, favoring planning and redistribution. Support for the free market is at historic lows, and way down from the 48% recorded in 1992.

I think that one needs to treat all this with a degree of caution. I mention in my article that it’s unlikely that many Russians are seriously considering a return to Soviet rule until some guy from Levada phones them up and asks them if they’re in favour. I suspect that the pro-Soviet option is as much a thumbs down to the alternatives as it is a thumbs up to communism. Likewise, I doubt that 62% of Russians would really like returning to the planned economy, although they obviously do believe that free market liberalism has its down sides and that wealth in their country is unequally distributed (as it is).

So, overall, what does it mean? Not that Russians are yearning to return to communism, I think. The Communist Party is most unlikely to win this week’s Duma elections. Rather the poll shows that Russians aren’t too happy with the existing system in their country, but – and this is the crucial element – they don’t see Western models as being any better. Of course, that may change – having swung one way, people may swing back again. But for now, Russians seem intent on going their own way.

Latest Poll Undermines Claims of Rising Dissatisfaction in Russia

Something has changed, we are told again and again. After two decades of misrule, Russians are getting increasingly fed up with Vladimir Putin and his ‘regime’. The recent protests caused by the arrest of Alexei Navalny are just the tip of the iceberg, underneath which is a huge wave of dissatisfaction just waiting to burst loose.

But is it? On the one hand, journalists provide anecdotal evidence to support the claim. On the other hand, there are the cold hard facts of survey statistics. What do they tell us?

To answer that question, we turn to the Russian sociological organization known as the Levada Centre. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Levada has been doing surveys for a long time, so one can compare data over a prolonged period. And second, Levada is well known for its liberal, anti-government orientation, and so cannot in any way be accused of biasing its surveys to favour the Russian state.

Today, Levada published its latest set of indicators. So, let’s take a look at these, starting with the one that everybody is always interested in – Vladimir Putin’s approval rating.

Approval of Vladimir Putin

This records that when asked the question ‘do you approve of Vladimir Putin’s activities as President?’, 64% of respondents said yes. That’s down from 69% in September of last year, but up from the 60% recorded in July at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus. The survey was conducted in January, which means before the recent protests, but well after Navalny’s poisoning and revelations of possible state involvement. If Russians were going to hold Putin to account for what happened to Navalny, or for the large number of covid-related deaths in Russia, one would expect that to show already. It doesn’t.

If there is any reason for Putin to be concerned it is that his approval rating is lower among younger people than older ones. Whereas 73% of people aged 55 or over approve of him, only 51% of those aged 18 to 24 do so. But then again, 51% is still a majority. It would clearly be wrong to say that Russian youth have firmly turned their backs on their president. Overall, therefore, while one can say that Putin has lost ground since the big bump in support he got after the annexation of Crimea, he’s still in a reasonably strong position.

The next set of data relates to the approval of the Russian prime minister over time. This has gone up and down, the biggest positive rating being when Putin held the post between 2008 and 2012. But if you look at the recent end of the chart, you see that the current PM, Mikhail Mishustin, seems to be doing quite well, with a rating of 58% and rising. Interestingly, that brings him close to Putin in terms of approval. Unlike for the president, however, this data is not from January, but from November of last year. It will be interesting to see if Mishustin keeps moving upwards.

Approval of the Prime Minister

Approval of politicians is one thing. One’s general attitude to life is another. Perhaps Russia support their rulers while quietly growing more and more unhappy with the general state of things. This third chart, which is again based on surveys in January, suggests otherwise, at least in general terms.

Evaluation of the current situation in the country

The black line in the chart shows the percentage of people who think that the country is moving in the right direction, and the blue line the percentage who think the opposite. The most recent data indicates is that despite the troublesome economic situation, Russians generally have a positive outlook, with 49% currently thinking that things are improving, and 40% thinking that they are getting worse.

Obviously, things can change. A ‘black swan’ might come along and disrupt everything. But Russia has experienced a few such swans in recent years (repeated economic crises, Western sanctions, and covid) and yet Russians on the whole retain a positive outlook regarding their country’s prospects and their rulers.

In fact, looking at the charts, rather than concluding that everything has changed, one gets the impression that the present looks very much like the past. As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Impossible victory

It’s always a pleasure to read the words of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, so imagine my joy at breakfast this morning when I opened up the Globe and Mail and found his latest article, entitled “Peace in Ukraine requires a carrot and stick approach.” You get a sense of where it’s going from the very first sentence, which says: “I just returned from the contact line in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, which separates free Ukraine from the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbass region.” I suspect that a lot of Irrussianality readers would have stopped right there and turned instead to the sports section, but it’s my job to read this guff, so I ploughed on. And what great reading it made!

It’s pretty clear how Rasmussen sees the war in Donbass: Ukraine v. Russia, not Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. “Nearly three million Ukrainians in the Donbass region live in fear,” writes our friend Fogh. True enough, perhaps, but I don’t think that for most of them its Russian artillery that they’re afraid of. But Rasmussen doesn’t let such little details bother him. Apart from spelling Donbass with two s’s, what follows in his article could pretty much have been written by the president of “free” Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, as if Rasmussen had just jotted down some Kiev briefing notes and recycled them for the Canadian press.

The core of the article is Rasmussen’s proposals for a “political solution” to the war. This involves “providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian soldiers,” and “deploying a robust United Nations peacekeeping force to the Donbass region.” The former should include “night-vision goggles, signal-jamming equipment and radar to detect enemy firing positions.” Quite why this is purely “defensive” military equipment, Rasmussen doesn’t explain. It can just as easily be used for offensive purposes. As for his peacekeeping proposal, it fits exactly with what Kiev has been suggesting – not a mere protection force for OSCE monitors, as Russia has proposed, and not a larger force to separate the sides and patrol the area between them, but a mission which “stretches all the way to the Ukraine-Russia border to avoid turning the contact line into a de facto new border,” and which should also “protect the population and the infrastructure.” In short, it would be a UN occupation force, a bit like the one NATO sent to Kosovo in 1999. We all know how that ended up. In essence, this is a proposal for the Donbass rebels’ surrender. It’s also contrary to the Minsk Agreements, which stipulate that Ukraine should regain control of its border only after it has granted special status to Donbass and carried out local elections.

But good old Anders has some carrots to offer as well – “full sanctions relief”, when and if “Russia delivers on the withdrawal of troops [who these are he doesn’t say] and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty … when all of Russia’s obligations are met.” No mention here of Ukraine’s obligations under Minsk, you will note. It’s not much of a carrot. “Give in to all our demands and then we’ll be nice to you,” is what it amounts to.

For that reason, Rasmussen’s proposal doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. When a war reaches stalemate, you can’t get peace by demanding that one side makes all the concessions. It won’t agree to it, and because the war is stalemated, you can’t force it to do so. In such a situation, the only way forward is something which takes both sides interests into consideration. Rasmussen seems utterly uninterested in that.

So what’s the alternative?

Continue reading Impossible victory

Less TV, more conservative

The anti-corruption protests in Moscow and elsewhere a few weeks ago were interpreted in many quarters as evidence that Russian youth were increasingly opposed to the ‘Putin regime’. As I pointed out at the time, the available sociological evidence doesn’t support this claim. Nevertheless, various analysts continue to believe that changing patterns of media usage will eventually work in that direction.

Part of the narrative which emerged from the protests concerned the fact that young Russians watch less TV than their parents and grandparents. According to some commentators, this means that the Russian state is losing its ability to spread its propaganda, and is therefore in danger of losing control of the population. For example, an article published today by the reliably ‘anti-regime’ Intersection Project discusses how the Russian state is waging an information war designed to create a sense that Russia is under attack from external and internal enemies, but:

Not only do young Russians predominantly access news via the Internet but they also choose to ignore the prospect of a conflict with the West. … the inevitable generational change may bring about a situation where the very idea of information warfare as a means of rallying Russian citizens against external and internal enemies will lose its former efficacy.

It is a superficially plausible thesis, but it doesn’t stand up to very close scrutiny. As the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov argues in a recent edition of Gazeta.ru, on the basis of surveys carried out by the Centre, the fact that young Russians don’t watch as much TV as older generations doesn’t mean that they are compensating by accessing political news on the internet, let along accessing ‘liberal’ or ‘pro-Western’ news sources. They aren’t. Instead, they just aren’t accessing political news at all!

If you turn on the TV news, you get politics whether you want it or not; on the internet, you have to actively seek politics out. Many don’t bother. They use the internet to find out the sports news, to track what’s happening to their favourite celebrities, and the like, but they pay little or no attention to Russian or international politics. Consequently, Volkov says, ‘The massive rejection by youth of television in favour of the internet doesn’t signify an alternative point of view, but a low level of knowledge about what is happening.’ In other words, the shift to the internet isn’t making young Russians more anti-regime, just more ignorant.

Volkov points out that the combination of the internet and Russian youth’s relative political ignorance does offer opportunities to those who can exploit the internet to grab young peoples’ attention. This would seem to give some hope to politicians like Alexei Navalny, but in fact Navalny is less known among youth (45%) than he is among the Russian population as a whole (55%). Young Russians ‘know little about the opposition’, says Volkov. The turn to the internet does not seem to helping the opposition much.

Indeed, Volkov suggests, the increased ignorance may actually make young people more conservative, more supportive of those in authority. Since they don’t bother informing themselves much about politics, they pick up their political attitudes from those around them, such as family and older people. The result is that, ‘as even independent sociologists note, support for the authorities is 15% higher than average among young people.’

The internet is indeed changing how people get information about politics, and thus is shaping the way they view the world – but not, it seems, in the way so many think.

Alexei two percent

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been generating a lot of headlines recently, and was the subject of a long article last week in The Guardian by Shaun Walker. The Guardian regularly writes on the subject of Navalny. According to the search function of its website, there are 728 Guardian articles mentioning his name. The Guardian also lists 377 for the late Boris Nemtsov, and a massive 1,590 for oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This contrasts with a mere 114 articles mentioning the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, and 163 mentioning Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The Daily Telegraph is even more extreme, with 1,100 articles about Navalny, 554 about Khodorkovsky, and 287 about Nemtsov, compared with only 92 for Zhirinovsky, 85 for Zyuganov, and 51 for Kasyanov. The score for the Washington Post is Khodorkovsky – 341; Navalny – 272; Nemtsov – 205; Zhirinovsky – 59; Kasyanov – 56; and Zyuganov – 28. For the Globe and Mail: Khodorkovsky – 337; Kasyanov – 106; Nemtsov – 80; Zyuganov – 65; Zhirinovsky – 61; Navalny – 36; and for the Toronto Star, Nemtsov – 82; Navalny – 75; Khodorkosvky – 59; Zhirinovsky – 26; Kasyanov and Zyuganov – both 21.

The pattern is fairly clear: leaders of Russia’s ‘systemic’ opposition receive much less coverage in the Western media than members of the ‘liberal’ and ‘non-systemic’ opposition. The one exception I have been able to find is The New York Times which leads with 844 mentions of Khodorkovsky, but which has 499 of Zyuganov and 481 of Zhirinovsky, compared with 330 of Navalny and 166 of Kasyanov.

The outsized attention given to the non-systemic opposition gives an entirely false impression of its political significance. For the most part, the media gives Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, who head substantial political parties which got about 13% of the vote in last year’s Duma election, less attention that Kasyanov and Nemtsov, whose PARNAS got less than 1%, and substantially less attention than Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia organized demonstrations last week which attracted just a few hundred people (which didn’t prevent headlines such as ‘Thousands of Russians Present Letters of Protest in Demonstrations’).

As for Navalny, an opinion poll published by the Levada Centre today gives him almost imperceptible levels of popular support. According to the poll, if a presidential election were held this Sunday in Russia, 48% would vote for Vladimir Putin, 3% for both Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, and just one percent for Navalny. Several other candidates would also get one percent, while 42% replied that they either don’t know or wouldn’t vote at all.

If you discount this last 42%, then the result of a Russian presidential election this week would be:

Putin – 83%; Zhirinovsky – 5%; Zyuganov – 4%; Navalny – 2%; Others – 6%.

That rather puts into perspective all the recent hype claiming that Navalny has fundamentally altered the Russian political dynamic. It also makes one wonder whether the media has its priorities right.

Neither war nor peace

Nezavisimaia Gazeta has published the results of an interesting Ukrainian opinion poll, which sheds light on why the conflict in Donbass remains unresolved.

According to the survey, 18.6% of Ukrainians support the idea of continuing the war in Donbass until final victory, down from 30% at the start of the year. However, only 23% are willing to countenance changing the Ukrainian constitution to give special status for Donbass, as required under the Minsk agreements. The most favoured policy option (30% of respondents) is to declare Donbass ‘occupied’ and isolate it. Only 12% of those polled supported the Minsk agreements in general. More specifically, although those agreements state that elections should take place in Donbass before the rebels hand control of the border back to the Ukrainian government, merely 24% of people supported this idea, whereas 51% opposed it. The agreements similarly oblige Kiev to grant an amnesty to the rebels. This has the support of 34% of people, but is rejected by 38%.

To borrow a phrase from Leon Trotsky, the situation in Ukraine is ‘neither war nor peace’. The poll suggests that this is no accident. Ukrainians have no great appetite for war, but they are unwilling to take the steps required to bring peace. If they have ended up with something in between, it is because that is what they appear to prefer. As Nezavisimaia Gazeta concludes, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko ‘cannot not take these circumstances into consideration’. At this stage, therefore, a major change in Ukrainian policy is unlikely.

Lithuania needs you!

One of the paranoid complaints about ‘Russian propaganda’ is that the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states could be manipulated into becoming a disloyal fifth column. In the report on Russian ‘information warfare’ which I reviewed last week, Ed Lucas and Peter Pomerantsev implied that the Russians were having a lot of success. ‘If Europe and North America do not promptly respond to this challenge’, write Lucas and Pomerantsev, ‘the result may be dramatic. Russia is radically challenging Euro-Atlantic solidarity and adding to widespread public discontent.’ But is ‘Russian propaganda’ actually creating public discontent and undermining the Baltic states from within.

A survey published this week suggests that the answer is no. The research company Baltijos tyrimai/Gallup asked Lithuanians whether they would defend their country in the event of a Russian attack. Similar polls conducted in 2005 and 2014 found that only 32% and 57% respectively would do so. Those surveys didn’t differentiate between ethnic Lithuanians and Lithuanian citizens of other ethnicities. This time, though, Baltijos tyrimai/Gallup restricted its sample to Lithuanian citizens of non-Lithuanian ethnicity (mainly Poles and Russians, plus some Belorussians, Ukrainians, and others). Of the 500 people asked, 64.8% said that they would defend Lithuania if the country was attacked by Russia. Interestingly, Russian-Lithuanians were more likely to answer yes than Polish-Lithuanians – 65% versus 59%.

It is, of course, quite possible that the respondents were lying. As some commentators have complained, the question is provocative and people might well have felt constrained about answering no. But the same was true in the previous surveys. If ‘Russian propaganda’ really is meant to create a fifth column in the Baltic states, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Taking Ukraine’s carrot

Ukraine, we are often told, has made a choice – to become a ‘European’ country, and in this way to decisively cut its historical ties to ‘non-European’ Russia. But what if Europe (in the form of the European Union (EU)) turns Ukraine away?

This has always been more likely than supporters of Ukraine’s post-Maidan government have been willing to admit. Ukraine’s situation is somewhat analogous to that of Turkey – even if the country were to fulfill all the demands that the EU makes of it, there is a very good chance that the Union would deny it membership anyway. The same applies to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). ‘Europe’ is like a carrot dangling always out of the reach of a Ukrainian donkey.

donkey-and-carrot
Ukraine & Europe

Continue reading Taking Ukraine’s carrot

Ukrainians unhappier than ever before

Gallup published a new poll today, measuring Ukrainians’ ‘life ratings’. This follows a survey of Ukrainian political opinion issued in late December. One caveat is necessary. Although Gallup has only just issued these results, it carried out the actual surveys in July and August of last year. The results are therefore rather out of date. Nevertheless, they are interesting. According to Gallup:

Conflict-weary Ukrainians gave their lives in 2015 the worst ratings that Gallup has measured yet in that country. On a ladder scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best possible life, Ukrainians on average rate their current lives at a 4.0. Ukrainians’ optimism about the future also dimmed last year, with their ratings of their lives in five years sinking to a new low of 5.2.

gallup1

Gallup considers anybody who rates his or her life at 7.0 or higher to be ‘thriving’, and anybody who rates it at 4 or below to be ‘suffering’. Since 2012, the percentage of the Ukrainian population in the first category has halved, while the percentage in the second category has risen by about 50%.

gallup2

Gallup notes that the ‘life ratings have dropped among residents from all age groups, education levels and genders’. Also, ‘The percentage of residents who report being satisfied with their standard of living has dropped from 27% to 17% over the past year, while the percentage of Ukrainians who view the country’s economic situation as “poor” jumped from 62% in 2014 to 79% in 2015.’

These negative figures correlate with dissatisfaction with the political authorities. On 23 December Gallup published another poll indicating that President Petro Poroshenko’s approval rating had fallen to 17%, and that only 8% of Ukrainians had confidence in their government. Support for Poroshenko was greatest in the west of the country. Not coincidentally, this is also the region where people rate their lives the highest. By contrast, southern Ukrainians rate their lives more poorly than any of their compatriots and at the time of the survey only 7% of them supported their president.

Support for President Poroshenko (Gallup).
Support for President Poroshenko (Gallup).

 

Peace or justice?

Which is more important – peace or justice? According to the standard interpretation of Just War Theory, there is a ‘presumption against war’; the harm war does is so great that anybody wishing to wage it has to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt, and peace – defined as ‘an absence of war’ – is a supreme value. Some philosophers, however, claim that there is no presumption against war. Rather there is a ‘presumption against injustice’. In this view, an absence of war (‘negative peace’) is not true peace at all. In order to produce a ‘positive peace’, in which justice flourishes, it is permissible to fight.

An interesting new survey reveals that the inhabitants of different countries have very different attitudes towards this issue. According to the Halifax/IPSOS Global Snapshot, produced for the 2015 Halifax International Security Forum, ‘over 70% of Americans and Chinese – more than any other country – believe that under certain conditions, war is necessary to achieve justice … [but] only 38% of Russians agree with that statement.’ I have been unable to copy the chart used in the Global Snapshot Report, but have entered the data into an Excel spreadsheet to produce a version which shows the main results, as follows:

Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)
Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)

A number of things come out of this. First, the Anglosphere (the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and to some extent India) is remarkably belligerent. Second, Hispanic countries (Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina) seem remarkably peace-loving. Third, Russia is a lot less inclined to wage war for some interpretation of ‘justice’ than most Western states. How do we explain these differences?

Power may have something to do with it. The United States, China, and Saudi Arabia are, probably not coincidentally, the first, second, and third largest spenders on defence in the world, while the UK is fifth. It would appear that having a lot of weapons may create, or spring from, an inclination to use them. But that wouldn’t explain why Russia and Japan (4th largest and 7th largest spenders respectively) are so much less inclined to use force than the USA and China. There appear to be some missing variables.

Culture and history are obvious candidates to fill the gap. As I have mentioned in previous posts, ‘just war’ isn’t part of the Russian philosophical tradition. War is seen as a tragic necessity, fought for reasons of security and not as a means of pursuing ‘justice’. By contrast, the modern Western philosophy of universal human rights means that it is relatively easy for Western Europeans and North Americans to regard war as something which can bring justice to the world. The religious zeal of the Saudis may perhaps give them a somewhat similar attitude. Overall, I speculate that countries which prefer peace to justice either haven’t had much experience with war (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico), and so haven’t got into the bad habit of thinking that it might be a good idea, or have had really bad experiences with war (Japan, Spain, Germany, and Russia), and so have learnt the hard way that war doesn’t bring justice and is best avoided.

What obviously isn’t true is the much beloved neoconservative idea that democracies are peace-loving. Some are, but some aren’t. And Russians, it appears, value peace more highly than Americans.