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Insider's View of Russian Public Opinion Polls

  • Peter Fedynsky

Politicians in Russia often cite public opinion polls that indicate a solid 70 percent majority of voters support the country's leadership. But a sociologist at a major Russian opinion survey firm says those numbers fail to represent the actual relationship between politicians and the people of Russia.

The director of social and political research at Russia's Levada Center polling firm, Boris Dubin, says Russian public opinion surveys are not what they seem. In a recent issue of the Yezhedveniy Zhurnal, or Daily Journal, Dubin writes that polls showing high levels of support for leaders do not necessarily indicate public approval of or trust for politicians. Instead, Dubin writes, the polls reflect a high correlation between the images of politicians shown on television all day and the public's expectations, illusions, fears and habits. Dubin told VOA the phenomenon can be understood as a form of theater; most people are not threatened by what they see, and do not believe they can influence the action.

The politicians, says Dubin, are more like reminders that things are not all that bad, and there will not be any glaring changes that could affect and alarm a majority of the population. He says this creates a feeling of calm, perhaps apathy, which surveys seem to reflect as so-called approval.

Russian national television does not allow access to any real political opponents. As a result, there is no common public forum to question official policies or to suggest alternatives.

Andrei, a worker in Moscow, says he has no way of getting to know other candidates and this can create a fear of unknown.

He says the reason is simple: If a new politician were to emerge, Andrei would not know how that person would act. He says he knows his current situation; he would not know what to do with change and fears things could be worse.

Andrei says this does not mean things today are good. He points to high levels of inflation and corruption, but feels powerless to do anything about it.

Boris Dubin says support for the government stems from what he refers to as a negative understanding of freedom in Russia. It is a freedom in which the state protects the social well-being of citizens. He claims the fewer responsibilities a Russian has, the freer he or she feels. Dubin cites figures that indicate 70 percent of Russians today consider themselves free, compared with only 40 percent in 1990. The figures are highest in areas where the government most controls the economy, prices, salaries and pensions.

Dubin says Russians are accustomed to the system and believe everyone around them is too. He says as much as 75 percent of the adult population told pollsters they could not survive without state support.

Boris Dubin says passivity and negative freedom in Russia have two major causes. The first is poverty. Only about 25 percent of the country's families have any savings, and most of those are rainy day funds, rather than capital to move up the social ladder. The second reason is lack of solidarity and connections in society. Dubin recognizes there are various protest groups nationwide, but says they lack coordination and represent a statistically small segment of society.

The sociologist adds this does not mean they are a weak segment of the population; if protest groups were united, they would be strong and could win respect. Dubin adds that inability to unite, much less to get their message out and grow, makes opposition activity sporadic, though authorities are very concerned by it.

President Dmitri Medvedev encourages public suggestions for improvement. But Andrei, the worker, says it is pointless to write to the president, because politicians will do what they want. And Arseniy, a Moscow student, told VOA his friend wrote to Mr. Medvedev, but instead received a response from an agency director, who claimed he had no authority to act on the suggestion. Then who does? asks Arseniy.

He also asks why bother maintaining a channel to the president, if the letter is sent to someone else. He says the system is not working and until it does, there will be no effect.

Roman, sales manager for a liquor distributor, supports the ruling tandem of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He says they are opposing a system fraught with corrupt bureaucrats that are holding Russia back.

Roman says corruption is the source of many problems. He says there are television reports about budget expenditures for various social programs, but in fact, a lot of the funds go into the pockets of bureaucrats. Fighting corruption, says Roman, should be Russia's number one priority.

This reporter has had countless conversations with ordinary Russians who recognize the country's problems, but say they are powerless to do anything about them. As a result, says Boris Dubin, sociologists, political scientists and economists pay little attention to a system that works poorly, but for which no one offers an alternative.

The sociologist also points to a statistically significant increase over the past 10 years of Russians identifying themselves as a collective "we." This, he says, means growing agreement about a common history where people can escape the present. The past, Dubin says, also offers refuge against the future, adding that no one wants responsibility for any problems – past, present or future.