On May 31, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) hosted a meeting entitled “How Russians and Americans View Each Other, Themselves, China and Iran” with Stephen J. Weber, Editor of WorldPublicOpinion.org. Commenting were Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Carnegie Russian and Eurasian Program, Steven Kull, of PIPA, Michael McFaul, Carnegie Senior Associate, and Igor Zevelev, Washington Bureau Chief for RIA Novosti.

Zevelev, Weber, Kull, McFaul, and KuchinsAndrew Kuchins: It would be very interesting to have time series data on these questions, as well as on Chinese public opinion. I notice that Americans are ambivalent about everything, while Russians are sure about everything from their president, to foreign policy, to Russia’s role in the world. Americans express such a clear opinion on only one question: they’re sure the American system of government is the best in the world.

For me these data present three puzzles. First, why are Russians so positive on China and Chinese foreign policy? I’m a bit wary of these data, and I wouldn’t say this means Russians see China as their most promising international partner. How durable is this sentiment? How much is it driven by dislike of American foreign policy? This opinion must also be interpreted in light of Russian television—the Sino-Russian military exercises were the top story every night for two weeks. Sergei Ivanov, the defense minister, was beaming like the Russians and Chinese had discovered the wheel together or something. The Russians and Chinese do share some view on international relations and U.S. hegemony, and both have strong interpretations of national sovereignty. But there are countervailing factors. U.S. culture is more attractive. Russian-Chinese relations are very positive at the elite level, but weaker at the popular level.

Second is the discrepancy between Russian and American views of Chinese use of force. This is explainable, because a U.S.-China war over Taiwan is imaginable, while a China-Russia war seems unlikely. But why do 40% of Americans say Russian foreign policy has a positive impact on the world, while 53% say it has a positive impact on the U.S. and its interests? This gap could be because of Russia’s opposition to the Iraq war.

Thirdly, Russian views of different political systems raise questions. Fifty-four percent of Russians approve of the U.S. system, 47 percent approve of the Russian system, and 56 percent approve of the Chinese system. While these systems are very different, the numbers are quite similar. Perhaps the respondents are using a sliding scale—they think each country has a system appropriate to its circumstances.

Strangely, these data show Russians think the Russian and Chinese systems are about equally democratic. They’re not being hard graders on Russia, but rather easy graders on China. For their part, the Chinese probably think the current Russian system is better than the one in the 1990s. They are even talking about “Beijing Consensus,” the tenets of which Russia is supposedly learning.

On Iran I think the numbers make sense. Russians don’t want a nuclear Iran, but they’re reconciled to the possibility. They’re probably more worried about Pakistan.

Igor Zevelev: We must remember that in unstable societies sentiment can shift rapidly. In the 1990s Russians held many contradictory opinions. Some persist, but these data have few contradictions or surprises.

On Iran, Russians and Americans see the problem similarly. There are two disagreements: sanctions and threat assessment. Russians see a nuclear Iran as an unpleasant fact, but one with which they can live. The public and the elite align on this.

China is viewed positively by Russians, but not by Americans. The reasons may be not only foreign, but also domestic. Russian opinion values modernization and order over democracy. In looking at China Russians see economic success, not lack of democracy. Most believe there are many possible roads to development, while Americans expect every country to become a liberal democracy.

These data show the American public likes Russian President Vladimir Putin more than the elite or the press. Many of the Americans who disapprove of Putin cite democratic backsliding. But the Russians whom Putin allegedly oppresses support him. There are two possible explanations. Perhaps the democracy situation isn’t as bad as Americans think. These poll data do not support this explanation. Russians give their democracy low marks, though a plurality sees progress. Alternatively, perhaps Russians are less concerned about democracy than growth and great-power status. Both hypotheses have elements of truth.

Michael McFaul: Tim Colton, Henry Hale and I have been doing polls every four years in Russia. Experience has taught us that it’s vital to disaggregate opinion on practice from opinion on norms. In the 1990s Russians disapproved of Yeltsin but approved of democracy. Approximately 80 percent consistently endorse elections, a free press, etc. These numbers are stable. Any alleged flirtation with the “Pinochet model” is meaningless. Russians don’t know what the “Pinochet model” is. If you ask them a specific question, they’ll say they don’t want military rule.

For now democracy is down on the Russian priority list. You would expect a correlation between the approval rating for the Russian system (47 percent) and for Putin (85 percent), but there’s actually divergence. Perhaps Putin is so popular because nobody can think of an alternative. There is a similar gap between Putin’s rating and the 31 percent rating for the economy.

The negative numbers on the U.S. represent a huge jump from 10 or 15 years ago, and that’s quite sad.

Americans, meanwhile, have no idea what Russia is doing in the world. It’s just not a priority for them anymore. I noticed in this poll 90 percent of Americans expressed an opinion on Hu Jintao. This isn’t data. Americans don’t know who Hu is! I bet fewer than 90 percent of the people in this room could have named the leader of China in a phone interview. Russians were more honest—50 percent did not respond to the Hu question.

Russians may like China, but in the realm of soft power they’re more attracted to the U.S. They want their kids to study in the U.S. and they want to travel to the U.S. It’s revealing that if you ask Russians with which country Russia is likely to go to war, 75 percent say China and only 25 percent say the U.S. Over the long run the Russian public has expressed a stable fear of China. But elite opinion has changed radically over the last decade.

Q: The contradictory poll numbers for Putin and the government reflect the traditional Russian attitude toward a national leader. Putin is seen as above the fray and mistakes are blamed on ministers.

Q: What do these numbers mean for Russian policymakers?
Zevelev: The numbers could reflect support for current policies. But if the economy changes or there is an international failure, they could shift.
Kuchins: Putin has more leeway than U.S. or European leaders, but perhaps less than we think. Ninety percent of Russians opposed the Iraq war, and Putin couldn’t ignore that. Nor can he ignore public opinion on the Kurile Islands dispute with Japan.

Q: Why are Russians so sanguine on Iran? Russia is already in conflict with Muslims in Chechnya. Is it like Marx’s capitalist, who sells even the rope that will be used to hang him?
Zevelev: Russians don’t think Iran will target Russia, but rather Israel and U.S. interests in the Middle East. Russia doesn’t want instability in the region either, but it has different ideas on tactics. Putin and Ivanov have made strong statements against Iran’s plans for a complete nuclear fuel cycle.
Kuchins: Iran hasn’t commented on Chechnya or supported the Chechens. Russia and Iran have worked together on Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The Russians see Iran as a partner, and they don’t want to do something that will make them a target for Iranian terror.
McFaul: The Sunni-Shia divide matters in all these places. Plus some Russians think Iran weakens the U.S., and in so doing strengthens Russia.