Tag Archives: public opinion

Resilient Russia

There is a particular breed of Russia watcher who likes to predict the country’s imminent collapse. For such ‘experts’, Russia is perpetually on the brink of social unrest, instability, and possibly even revolution. The apparent popularity of President Vladimir Putin and the seeming strength of the Russian state are just facades hiding a seething cauldron of discontent which is likely to boil over the moment that the state opens up the lid by relaxing the forces of repression. The ‘Putin regime’, in other words, is doomed. It’s just a matter of time.

You’ve no doubt read this sort of thing. It’s pretty common. So too is another type of analysis which maintains that Russia is stuck in terminal economic decline. The only way out of this is ‘deep structural reform’, but the ruling regime is incapable of carrying out such reform, as it would undermine the interests of the oligarchic clans which prop it up. Barring regime change, the only way Russia can do is down.

The fact that the Putin regime stubbornly refuses to collapse or even show any tangible signs of serious weakness doesn’t deter pundits from repeating these ideas. An example is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian. Written by French academic Marie Mendras, the article’s content is pretty much summed up by its title, ‘Putin’s Russia is a sinking ship’. Don’t be fooled by the World Cup, Mendras says:

The overwhelming majority of Russia’s 140 million people worry about declining living standards, falling health and education levels, material insecurity, and corruption. A few weeks ago, protests erupted in many regions and across social classes against a government plan to raise the pension age … this demonstrated a swell of mistrust in the authorities … sociologists at the independent Levada Centre in Moscow point to a rising pessimism. … Domestic social anger, civic demands, youth opposition, and ‘temporary diasporas’ [caused by the ‘brain drain’] may converge to create difficulties for Putin. … Putinism as a formula for stability has run its course.

Let’s take a quick look at Mendras’s evidence. For sure, Russians worry about ‘material insecurity’. Living standards did decline substantially in 2014-2016, but since then they’ve begun to rise, albeit slowly. I don’t know about education levels, but health certainly isn’t declining. On the contrary, Russian life expectancy continues to increase. As for the other stuff, let’s have a look at what the Levada Centre actually has to say about social attitudes. Mendras’s article links to what Levada calls the Social Sentiments Index. This has indeed taken a sharp dip in recent months, probably because of the negative response to the proposed pension reform. But if you look at the Index over the longer term (as shown among some other charts here), you can observe that while it goes up and down in the short term, over the past 18 years the general line has remained remarkably stable. It’s possible that the current dip could turn into something more substantial, but as yet it’s far too early to say that. It could just be a temporary phenomenon related to the pension issue.

Another Levada index (the Consumer Sentiment Index – to be found just under the Social Sentiment Index) suggests a much more positive picture. Consumer sentiment has risen quite dramatically since 2016. This suggests that Russians are much more optimistic about their economic situation. In the long term, that it is likely to translate into more general social satisfaction.

As for Russians’ overall attitude to their country’s development, yet another Levada Index (entitled ‘Assessment of situation in the country’) shows a sharp decline in positive attitudes in the last couple of months (again, most likely connected with the pension issue), but even now more Russians think that their country is going in the right direction (46%) than the wrong direction (42%). Again, one can’t easily predict what the future holds and whether the recent drop will continue further downwards or prove temporary, but the data at present doesn’t justify alarmism.

Indeed, it may indicate that the Russian state is in a rather stronger position than its critics make out. The need for pension reform has been clear for years. But until now the Russian state has felt too weak to enact it. The pension issue is precisely the sort of ‘deep structural reform’ that many insist Russia has to carry out. The problem with such reforms is that they tend to be very unpopular. This is why governments often avoid them. But in the aftermath of Putin’s decisive re-election as president, and after Russia’s successful weathering of economic recession, the Russian government apparently now feels that it is strong enough to get away with it. And the evidence would suggest that so far it is. As the Levada data shows, the government has taken a hit as a result, but it’s not a massive one. As for the protests which Mendras mentions, it is noticeable that they have been far less substantial than those over a previous attempt at pension reform in 2005. The Russian state looks as though it will be able to weather the negative reaction to its current plans relatively comfortably.

At a conference I attended last year, a group of experts from Russia and the English-speaking world almost unanimously agreed that Russia was far more resilient than generally portrayed. In the past four years, it has endured a collapse in energy prices and consequent collapse in the value of the ruble, economic sanctions, and war (in Ukraine and Syria), and yet has emerged remarkably unscathed. That suggests that the Russian state possesses quite deep reserves of strength.

Over the past decade, I’ve read so many variations of Mendras’s thesis that I’ve lost count. All sorts of reasons have been put forward to explain why the ‘Putin regime’ is doomed – demographic decline, economic failure, Western sanctions, the supposed alienation of Russian youth, and so on. So far, none of them have amounted to anything and all the predictions of impending collapse have proven untrue. That doesn’t mean that they can’t come true in the future, but I’m not betting on it.

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Two views of Russia

Two recent editions of academic journals provide very different views of modern Russia and its political system. According to one, Russia is a ‘fascist’ state, whose rulers ‘show an utter contempt for Russia’s people’. According to the other, Russia’s government and people broadly share the same priorities; the government pays close attention to the wishes of the people, who in return see the government generally, though not overwhelmingly, positively.

The first assessment comes in a special edition of Communist and Post-Communist Studies devoted to the topic ‘Between Nationalism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism in Russia: Exploring Vladimir Putin’s Regime’. Edited by Canadian-Ukrainian scholar and vocal Putin critic Taras Kuzio, it contains articles not only by Kuzio himself but also (among others) by Rutgers University’s Alexander Motyl and the author of the Window on Eurasia blog, Paul Goble, both of whom are well known for their hostility to the Russian government.

Motyl’s contribution is entitled ‘Putin’s Russia as a Fascist Political System’. Motyl proposes that ‘Putin’s Russia may legitimately be termed fascist.’ To make this argument, he examines various definitions of fascism and then creates his own, calling fascism ‘a popular fully authoritarian political system with a personalistic dictator and a cult of the leader’. The rest of his article consists of an effort to show that all these features exist in Putin’s Russia.

The centrepiece of Motyl’s thesis is his claim that Russia has evolved from a ‘soft’ authoritarian state into a ‘fully authoritarian’ one. One can certainly argue that political opposition in Russia is constrained. Nevertheless, opposition exists and is tolerated. It didn’t, and wasn’t, in fascist regimes, such as 1930s Italy or Germany. In Russia, people hold rallies denouncing Putin and his ‘regime’. They publish books saying the same thing. They appear on radio and television. They make their hostility to their government clear on the internet. That is hardly compatible with ‘full authoritarianism’, let alone fascism. (Can you imagine Mussolini permitting such things?) Motyl’s thesis is well wide of the mark.

Rather better is an article by the University of Arizona’s John P. Willerton, entitled ‘Russian Public Assessments of the Putin Policy Program: Achievements and Challenges’, in the new journal Russian Politics, which has just produced its second edition.

Willerton avoids making moral judgements about Putin and his government, and limits himself to a study of how the Russian people assess their government’s performance. He notes that, ‘However one judges the state of the Russian polity, whether as some sort of “hybrid regime” or a returned “soft” authoritarian state, there is no doubt that Russian public preferences matter for the country’s political life, and elites – including Vladimir Putin – are well aware of this. … There is considerable evidence that Putin and his team are highly concerned about public opinion.’ Having been in power for 15 years, Putin and those around him need to perform well and fulfill public expectations in order to avoid ‘policy weariness’ and possible ‘mounting public impatience.’

As a first step, Willerton describes the policy priorities established by Putin in various areas. These are: ‘efficient state institutions’, ‘quality of social services’, ‘protection of people’s rights and freedoms’, ‘higher standard of living’, ‘provision of goods and services to the public’, ‘revitalization of cultural life’, ‘promotion of traditional families’, ‘fight against crime and corruption’, ‘ensuring social justice’, ‘returned trust to institutions’, and ‘protection of Russia internationally’. Using data from opinion polls, Willerton finds ‘a high correspondence between Putin and public assessments as regards what are important policy matters.’ In short, the ‘regime’ and the public care about the same things.

However, ‘the public’s assessments of the Putin team performance in addressing these eleven policy concerns is much more mixed.’ Russians rate Putin’s foreign policy highly, but their assessments of achievements in domestic policy are ‘middling … in some cases modestly good, while none can be described as failing.’ Russians think that the government is doing reasonably well in ‘providing goods and services necessary for the people’ and ‘efficient state institutions’ but less well in providing ‘better quality of social services’ and in fighting crime and corruption. Given the regular complaints by foreign commentators about increased government repression, it is interesting that Russians give their leaders an ‘above average’, though not ‘high’, rating for protecting their rights and freedoms.

The government can be reasonably satisfied with these results, Willerton suggests, but adds that there are some causes for concern. While the public’s top priorities are a higher standard of living, better social services, fighting crime, and ensuring social justice, it rates the government’s performance slightly lower on these matters than on those which it considers less important, such as more efficient state institutions and protecting the traditional family. Also, Russians rank Putin much higher than other than political actors, although everyone associated with the current ‘regime’ (e.g. the United Russia party and the Cabinet of Ministers) does much better than opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, who is rated very negatively. Willerton concludes:

The Russian public shares the same policy priorities as the governing Putin team, and that public offers a basically positive assessment of the performance of that team in implementing those policy priorities. The Russian public expresses strong confidence in Vladimir Putin himself, who appears as a paramount leader who stands above his team associates and the institutions – governmental and nongovernment – which they lead. The public’s confidence in those associates and institutions, however, is restrained, suggesting acceptance rather than enthusiasm. Meanwhile, if the public’s reaction to Putin critic Aleksei Navalny is any indication, elements strongly opposed to the Putin team’s efforts enjoy little support from the Russian mainstream.