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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Russians on Democracy via DAN

The blogger at Darkness at Noon, apparently in the middle of PhD dissertation research, is now conducting a series of polls of Russians about their ideas on democracy, and offers the following preliminary results:

1) Many respondents understand the pluses and minuses of democracy and authoritarianism. They know that under authoritarianism people can't select their leaders and can't criticize the regime. But they also believe that under authoritarianism things are more orderly, the state fulfills its functions better, and the economy is more stable. And so while they know that there are bad things about authoritarian government, many people seem to believe that the "positives" still outweigh the negatives.

2) At the same time, many respondents don't have a consistent set of beliefs about democracy and authoritarianism. Thus, they answer that "having a strong leader who doesn't have to worry about things like elections or parliament" would be a good thing. But for the very next question they also say that "having a democratic political system" would be a good thing. Thus, for many people these things are not mutually exclusive. This would suggest that either they don't really understand what democracy means, or that they're working with a very different definition of democracy than we do.

3) On that note, if you ask them to talk about problems that come along with democracy, they start talking about low pensions, unpaid wages, unemployment, high prices, and crime. Notice that none of these things really have anything to do with democracy per se. They are not components of the classical definition of liberal democracy. But this is what democracy means to Russians because this is what they had in the 1990s when they had supposed "democracy." This doesn't necessarily mean that Russians don't want the classic "goods" of democracy - free speech, elections, freedom of assembly, free press, etc. - but it does mean that any political elites trying to carry the mantle of democracy will have a hard time convincing people to follow them. Democracy and democrats have a bad name in Russia.

4) But how much do Russians really want the classic "goods" of democracy? When asked what the most important problems facing Russia today are, nobody - nobody - said anything about loss of freedom of speech, the loss of a free press, the strengthening of the state, the erosion of political competition. Again, it was all about pensions, unemployment, wages, and prices. Nor did people believe that protecting liberal rights are among the most important functions to be fulfilled by the state.

5) Regardless of what the want or don't want, the respondents with whom we spoke are extremely passive when it comes to politics. While nearly everyone could give examples of policies made by the state in the last 15 years that they were unhappy about, the vast majority of respondents expressed their dissatisfaction by talking about it with friends and family. Nothing more. A few people said they had or might be inclined to sign a petition in the future, but hardly anyone said that they would be likely to attend a demonstration, for example.

What does this mean for Russia's political development? It seems clear that the state has systematically be reducing the number of independent poles of political power - the media, the duma, political parties, the courts, the governors have all had their wings clipped by the Kremlin. It seems that the only force remaining that might be able to exercise political power in opposition to the state are citizens themselves by taking to the streets in large numbers. But as the many demonstrations in Russia in the last few months have shown, even this method is being severely restricted by the state. But beyond the state's actions discouraging mass protest action, my interviews demonstrated that most people are simply apathetic to political action and are unlikely to take to the streets anytime soon. So those of you waiting for a new revolution shouldn't hold your breath....

6) A series of questions were asked whereby respondents had to rate whether some of Russia's neighboring countries are more democratic or more authoritarian. Not surprisingly, their answers didn't really reflect the true democraticness of the countries under question, but rather reflected subjective opinions about what they thought of those countries. Thus, Estonia and Ukraine were most often labeled as fairly authoritarian countries, whereas Belarus is downright democratic. After all, "that Lukashenko is a good muzhik!"

7) People were asked to rate the political system in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Not surprisingly, they rated it fairly positively. However, when asked whether such a political system would suit Russia today, most answered that it would not, stating that "that was a different time, and things have changed now." I found this surprising, as most superficial surveys you read about in the news assume that because people rate the Brezhnev era highly they must want things to be like they were in "the good old days." Many people did mention problems with the Brezhnev era - empty shelves being the most frequent answer - but, like it or not, now they have a new system with new problems. So they'll get by.

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