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Friday, March 02, 2007

Exploding the Myth that Russia is not Dangerous To Europe

Writing in the Moscow Times Maria Ordzhonikidze (pictured), senior secretary of the EU-Russia Centre, and Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, exposes Vladimir Putin as a blatant liar when he claims that Russians have friendly attitudes towards Europeans and are therefore not dangerous. This is a clarion warning call, heed it or take the consequences, Europeans.

The majority of Russians don't think of themselves as European but as representatives of a different civilization. Many are actually afraid of Europe and don't share what are generally considered to be European values, and this is leading to a sense of alienation from Europe. These were the results of an opinion poll from December by the Levada Center and commissioned by the EU-Russia Centre.

A full 71 percent of those surveyed didn't think of themselves as Europeans, and almost half (45 percent) consider Europe to be a potential threat (compared with 37 percent who did not see such a threat and 18 percent who were unable to answer). Of those who thought of the European Union as a threat, 39 percent identified the danger they believe it poses to Russian economic and industrial independence, 24 percent cited the danger associated with the imposition of a foreign culture, 24 feared the threat it posed to Russian political independence and, closing out the list, 13 percent identified the EU as a military threat.

This sense of alienation is also evident with regard to what are broadly considered European values: democracy, civil rights and market capitalism. Only 16 percent of those surveyed identified the "Western model" of democracy as the ideal (this same figure was 25 percent in 1996) and 35 percent said that they "prefer the Soviet system before the 1990s." Another 30 percent of those surveyed said that Western democracy "wasn't a fit for Russia" and 12 percent said it has had a "devastating effect on Russia."

Negative concepts like chaos, demagoguery and pointless chattering were most often associated with democracy by people from the lowest income groups (19 percent, or more than three times higher than the number for high-income respondents), among those with lower levels of education (23 percent, but just 4 percent among students and 9 percent among those with university educations), and more often in rural areas (15 percent, compared with 4 percent in Moscow). Positive associations were most often registered by the young, entrepreneurs, civil servants and members of law enforcement agencies. Perhaps most striking, 65 percent of those surveyed were unable to provide an answer as to what they understood "liberal democracy" to mean.

An understanding of a separation of powers was practically absent among those surveyed. Asked whether the activities of the judiciary and legislative branches should be under the control of the executive branch, an absolute majority of those surveyed answered that the judiciary (56 percent) and legislative (54 percent) branches should be at least to some extent.

Asked to label a group of concepts generally associated with democratic values as either positive or negative, just 33 percent chose the word "freedom" as positive, while 44 percent said they were positively predisposed to the idea of "private property" and 49 percent to that of "defending human rights." A large number of respondents chose capitalism (40 percent) and privatization (36 percent) as having a negative association. It is interesting that the processes of privatization and accumulation of large personal fortunes continue to become less legitimate in the public consciousness. At the beginning of the 1990s, about one quarter of those surveyed believed it was possible to earn a million rubles honestly. By 2006, this number had fallen to just 13 percent.

The distribution of the answers in the survey bore little dependency to the place where they lived, so regional identification appeared to have no bearing on attitudes related to Europe. Seventy-five percent of trespondents consider Russia to be a Eurasian state with its own particular path of development and its own values. Just 10 percent said that Russia is part of the West and should look for closer ties with the EU countries and the United States.

How can we reconcile these numbers with the rhetoric of those in power toward their Western partners about the concept of pan-European partnership or who, like President Vladimir Putin, call Russia "a historically and culturally ... integral part of Europe."

LR: Obviously, we can't. We can only gird our loins.

It seems that in the 21st century, just as in the 18th, Russia's ruling elites are far more Europeanized than the population as a whole. Peter the Great's order that the boyars shave their beards and don European clothing; the never ending arguments between Westernizers and Slavophiles; the Decembrist movement; the planting of Marxist economic theories in Russian soil; and finally the capitalist modernization of the rotting Soviet economy -- each of these initiatives from the top has been met with, if not passive resistance from the masses, then at least increasing ambivalence.

This is reflected in the fact that 94 percent of those surveyed said they "don't have any influence on the current situation" in the country or that their influence was "relatively small" or even "too small' (13 percent and 18 percent, respectively). Those who said that they exercised a "deciding" or " significant" influence on the path of their lives and the country numbered just over 2 percent.

Directly related to this is a very low sense of responsibility among respondents for what happens in the country. This is the case for the overwhelming majority of respondents (82 percent: 39 percent feeling "little" or "very little" responsibility and 43 percent said they felt no responsibility at all). Russians appear to have reconciled themselves to the idea that all significant decisions in the country are made independently of their opinion. The result is growing political apathy, as 17 percent of those surveyed said they would not vote in State Duma elections this December, 11 percent that they had yet to decide whether to vote and 23 percent said they were undecided for whom they would vote.

The worsening of Russian attitudes toward Europe and its basic values is an alarming indicator, revealing the insufficient (if not completely absent) effort on the part of the elites looking for Russian integration into a European system of values. The absence of a sense of responsibility among Russians for what is happening in the country, the average person's willingness to accept at face value the explanation of decisions as necessary by those on television, and attitudes of suspicion toward ideas like the separation of powers bear witness to the widening gulf in values between Russia and Europe.

This political passivity on the part of the public provides ruling elites with significant freedom to carry through a more Westernized policy line than the majority of Russians actually support. At the same time, the public's strong refusal to accept European values limits the government ability to follow a pro-Western foreign policy line, just as it acts as a brake on the introduction of further reforms to strengthen the market economy and further the democratization process. This split has been one of the main determinants of Russia's foreign and domestic policy course over the last seven years.

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