Meeting report, Vol. 3, No. 10, April 2, 2001

On March 28, 2001, Carnegie Senior Associate Michael McFaul presented his findings on Russian attitudes toward democracy, markets, and the West, based on extensive polling conducted before and after parliamentary and presidential elections in 1999-2000. The data gathered by McFaul challenge Western assumptions that portray the average Russian as anti-democratic. Instead, McFaul's figures show that most Russians have positive attitudes toward many aspects of democracy, and that Russian attitudes toward markets and the West are much more complex than commonly assumed.

Order vs. Democracy: Assumptions about Russia
Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program, began the meeting by describing the formidable task of gathering public opinion data over a two year time span in a way representative of the entire Russian population. McFaul worked with Timothy J. Colton of Harvard to gather responses on hundreds of questions, carefully formulated to accurately gauge Russian attitudes.

With such a vast array of data, McFaul noted that drawing conclusions was no easy task. The information gathered presented several contradictions: the first between Russian attitudes on order and stability versus democracy; the second between attitudes on democracy versus attitudes toward the old Soviet system.

"The historical narrative on Russia has crystallized in the past year and a half," based on the assumption that the rise of Putin demonstrates that Russians prefer a strong state over democracy, noted McFaul. There are many reasons one might assume this to be true, given the dominant role a strong state has played in Russian history, the historical failure of democratic reforms in Russia, and the failure of the current Russian elite to enshrine in myth the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a popular and democratic revolution. Also, Western analysts are prone to this assumption because of the legacy of the Cold War, during which Russia was viewed as different and separate from the West. Even the propensity of political scientists to focus more on the state than on societal attitudes causes the complex Russian state to dominate discussions of contemporary Russia. Combined with the rhetoric of the Kremlin, which has come to espouse political authoritarianism and liberalized markets, these factors reinforce the perception of Russians as preferring stability and order over freedom and democratic participation.

Democracy, Markets, and the West
In fact, McFaul's data show that Russians have much more positive attitudes toward democracy than might be expected. Interestingly enough, Russians are more critical of markets than is commonly thought. Russian attitudes toward the West, however, are generally mixed at best, which is no surprise to analysts of Russia in the wake of the 1998 financial crisis and Russian criticism of NATO expansion and the 1999 war in Kosovo.

McFaul found that 62.9 percent of Russians supported the idea of democracy, and most Russians thought military rule would be a bad way of governing Russia and that the parliament should have equal or greater power than the president (70.4 percent and 66.5 percent, respectively). While the majority of Russians (67.2 percent) were prepared to support banning certain political parties to bring about order in the country, 79.4 percent of Russians believe freedom of the press, radio, and television is important. The freedom to elect the country's leaders is important to an overwhelming 85.7 percent of Russians, and 86.1 percent believe it is the duty of each citizen to vote in elections.

A majority of Russians (73.1 percent), however, believe the Soviet Union should never under any circumstances have been dissolved. Most Russians (56.2 percent) believe that they have no say in what the current government does. Finally, 71.5 percent of Russians are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in Russia. Nevertheless, a solid majority (58.4 percent) of Russians think a democratic system is an appropriate way of governing Russia, opposed to only 24.4 percent who believe it is a bad way to govern the country.

As an institution, Russians trust the military the most (76.3 percent of respondents), followed by the Russian Orthodox Church (70.7 percent). However, 80.3 percent of Russians agree that Russia should have a professional army, consisting of paid volunteers rather than conscript soldiers.

In examining attitudes toward the economy, the influence of Soviet-era thinking is more apparent. According to McFaul's polling, 83.9 percent of Russians believe that all heavy industry must belong to the state and should not be given over to private ownership. An overwhelming 93.9 percent of Russians think that the government ought to guarantee a job to everyone who needs one, and 66.1 percent think the state should limit the incomes of the rich. Interestingly, 34.8 percent of Russians consider themselves to belong to the middle class, a figure much higher than official estimates of the size of Russia's middle class. Also, in contrast to opinions favoring a dominant governmental role in managing the economy, 63.5 percent of Russians think that competition among various enterprises, organizations, and firms is beneficial to society, while only 11.9 percent disagree.

Russia views the United States as a threat to its security, with 55.4 percent of respondents agreeing that US policy threatens Russia. Similarly, 55.2 percent of Russians would have a negative attitude toward the inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO. However, 44.6 percent of respondents thought that the inability of Russia to resolve its internal problems is the greatest danger to the nation.

Discussion Period
Asked how Russian attitudes compare with attitudes of citizens of other nations in transition, McFaul said that Russia fit the profile of an "average country in transition," correlating closely, surprisingly enough, with Zimbabwe. McFaul observed that the data gathered on Russia might indicate that Russian society is more receptive to democracy than are Russian elites and official institutions. Responding to a question on the extent to which Russians believed the balloting process to be fair and confidential, McFaul noted that this particular aspect was not included in his extensive survey, but would be a fruitful topic for further research.

McFaul described the procedure by which data were gathered; the questions were presented to a group representative of the overall Russian population in the form of a questionnaire, in which the questions were randomly clustered, that participants had 90 minutes to complete. The participants were not aware that they were taking part in a survey sponsored and designed by Americans. The information was gathered after Vladimir Putin became a factor in Russian politics, so his influence is reflected in the responses. However, according to McFaul, it is possible that Putin's continued involvement in politics could cause popular attitudes to shift markedly in the future.

Responding to questions on how to interpret Russians' nostalgia for the Soviet Union, McFaul pointed out that feelings of nostalgia are probably linked to other issues, such as the general prosperity enjoyed under Brezhnev. When asked about specific Soviet practices, particularly travel prohibitions and monetary restrictions, Russians were much more critical of the Soviet past.

McFaul is analyzing the vast and complex set of data he has gathered, and he plans to publish a Working Paper soon, which will be followed by an edited volume with Timothy J. Colton.

Summary prepared by Erik Scott, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.