In poll, Russians see wide gap between democratic ideals and reality

May 23, 2012

With Russia in a state of political ferment for the first time in more than a decade, a new poll has found sharply expressed and seemingly contradictory opinions holding sway.

Russians strongly support specific characteristics of democracy, such as fair courts, a free press and honest elections — but don’t mention the word “democracy,” or support drops way off.

Russians, as they have for years, still express strong approval of President Vladimir Putin. But a majority also approve of the political protests that have taken place since December.

It is a sign of the flux and uncertainty that prevail here. The Global Attitudes Project of the Pew Research Center — which has been polling in Russia, among other countries, for a decade — did 1,000 face-to-face interviews between March 19 and April 4, in the weeks following the presidential election. It found disquiet over the economy, pride in Russia as a nation and belief in a strong leader, as well as a widening gap between ideals and realities.

For instance, 71 percent of those polled said a fair judiciary is very important — and just 17 percent said Russia has one. Lesser but still significant differences showed up in respondents’ views on honest elections, uncensored media, a civilian-controlled military, free speech and religious freedom.

Pew calls this the “democracy gap,” between what should be and what is, and the average for all six categories has grown from a 21-percentage-point difference in 2009 to 34 points in 2012.

That’s a sign of the sharply higher expectations that Russians have of their society today — along with deeper disappointments. It helps explain the sudden eruption of street protests here after the apparently cooked parliamentary elections of Dec. 4.

Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center in Moscow, said this week that Pew’s findings roughly correspond to those of the polls his organization takes. “Democracy,” he said, earned a bad name in the 1990s, when attempts at reform unleashed rapacious oligarchs and dysfunctional politics. But now, gradually, Russians are coming to understand that there are democratic norms and that their country doesn’t have them.

“The absolute majority has no idea what democracy is,” he said, but Russians increasingly sense that other countries gain something through open elections, respect for rights and occasional transfers of power.

The announcement in September that Putin and his protege Dmitry Medvedev, then the president, had decided between themselves to switch places was a key moment, Gudkov said. According to his polling, 27 percent of Russians deemed it a “personal humiliation.”

In the contentious atmosphere of the following months, the Pew poll found that sharply higher numbers of Russians said voting is important. In 2009, 54 percent dismissed that idea; this year, 56 percent agreed with it, and the largest gains were among older voters, especially those over 50.

Yet support for Putin remains high, in part because of the perceived weaknesses of his competitors.

Outside the big cities, most Russians still get their news from state-controlled television, which helps to explain Putin’s high standing. Alexei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption blogger who has emerged as a leader of the protests, is largely unknown throughout the country, and those who have heard of him tend to have a negative opinion of him.

This, too, is a consequence of television news, Gudkov said.

James Bell, director of international survey research for Pew, said in an e-mail that this year there have been no questions about corruption, but he thinks it may have had an effect on attitudes.

Corruption is universally believed to have mushroomed in Russia under Putin, both at the everyday level and at the top of society. Gudkov said 70 percent of small-business owners report paying a bribe.

A hint, in the Pew poll, about views on corruption lies in the question about fair courts. It is through the courts that businesses are stolen, often with their previous owners landing in prison as a consequence. A consistently high number of Russians have said over the years that it is important for the courts to treat everyone equally (71 percent this year), but the number of those who say that Russian courts do so has dropped by a third since 2007 (to today’s 17 percent).

“The courts are bodies that protect the interests of power and not of people,” Gudkov said.

Vladimir Pastukhov, a visiting scholar at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford, said in a recent interview that establishing an independent court system would be the single most important step in putting Russia on the right track. “Everything else will come of this,” he said. Political reform, even the dreaded “democracy,” will follow once the rule of law is in place.

By making fair courts the most widely supported aspect of a properly functioning country, and contrasting that most sharply with the reality, Russians appear to agree.

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