People walk in Moscow on April 9. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)

On March 18, Vladimir Putin sailed to his fourth term as Russia’s president on a campaign that appealed to nationalism, racism and anti-gay attitudes. The campaign reflects a broader trend of rising ethnic nationalism in Europe and the United States, influencing voting on everything from Brexit to the recent reelection of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Since the mid-1990s, observers of Russia have warned that xenophobia is growing there as well. Journalists and commentators have declared Russia has a “xenophobia problem,” that nationalism is on the rise there, and — here at TMC — that “Russia is growing more xenophobic.”

It’s true that Putin implemented a very public anti-immigrant campaign and has articulated a strong nationalism. But he also frequently praises Russia’s ethnic diversity and has talked about Russia as one of the truly multicultural nations.

So what do ethnic Russians really think about other ethnic groups and nationalities? In a new study (now available to the public), my co-authors and I provide one of the first in-depth looks at Russian xenophobia over time, defining xenophobia as fear or hostility toward outgroups. Surprisingly, we find the 2000s have actually registered a slight decline in xenophobic sentiments toward internal ethnic minority groups, such as Roma and Chechens — the groups typically among the most mistreated ethnic groups in Russia. There are caveats, of course. Here’s what we found.

How we did our research:

Our study is based on data from three nationally representative surveys: the 1996 Russian Election Survey, with 2,841 respondents, and two original surveys conducted by Theodore P. Gerber, one of the paper’s co-authors, in 2004 and 2012, with 11,202 and 5,205 respondents, respectively. All three surveys examine xenophobic sentiment toward Chechens, Jews and Muslims, measured as “extreme dislike” in 1996 and “hostility or fear” in the 2000s. The 2004 and 2012 surveys also measure such attitudes toward Roma and Azerbaijanis.

Although the question wording differed slightly between the 1996 and 2000s surveys, we can directly compare the percentage of people who express xenophobic sentiment toward minority groups in the 2000s. Contrary to popular wisdom, from 2004 to 2012, there was a decrease in xenophobic attitudes toward all groups, except Muslims and Jews: from 45 percent to 38 percent for Chechens; 46 percent to 40 percent for Roma; and 28 percent to 24 percent for Azerbaijanis. In total, the percentage of respondents who expressed hostility or fear toward at least one group included in our survey decreased from 62 percent to 54 percent over this period.

It’s not Putin’s supporters but his opponents who exhibit xenophobia

Our study also examines what factors could lead a Russian citizen to be xenophobic, including support for or opposition to Putin. Commentators have accused Putin of promoting anti-minority nationalism and fostering xenophobia in much the same way as leaders in Eastern Europe such as Orban.

In the 2004 and 2012 surveys, we asked respondents how confident they were in Putin’s leadership; he was Russia’s president during the first survey and prime minister during the second. We then conducted multivariate analyses to assess the effects of confidence in Putin on xenophobic attitudes. What we found will surprise some: People with a strong lack of confidence in Putin were more likely than Putin supporters to express xenophobic attitudes toward all minority groups included in our analyses.

This finding is consistent with research on right-wing extremism in Russia and other contexts. Anti-minority extremists are often anti-state, believing that the government has not taken a hard enough stance against minorities. For instance, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, has flirted with xenophobic and nationalist sentiment. He helped organize the 2006 “Russian March” and supported the movement “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” a region that the Russian federal government heavily subsidizes.

Moscow has become more xenophobic than other regions

We also found attitudes vary by region — but not as one might predict. According to our analysis of the 1996 survey, residents of Moscow were among the least xenophobic Russians in the mid-1990s. Compared with residents in other regions, Muscovites were less likely to express xenophobic attitudes toward Chechens, Muslims and Jews than residents of other localities.

But by 2012, Muscovites were more likely to admit dislike of these same groups, compared with residents of most other localities. Antagonism toward internal minorities has decreased in Russia over time — but it’s on the rise in Moscow, an area with one of the country’s largest migrant populations.

These findings have two important implications. First, while we by no means intend to suggest xenophobia is not a serious issue in Russia, xenophobic sentiment toward minority groups appears to be on the decline. While our data do not extend beyond 2012, data from the Levada Center, an independent polling center, indicate trends we observe have continued.

Second, commentators who believe cosmopolitan Moscow is serving as a bulwark against a nationalist Putin may have things backward. While appeals to xenophobic sentiment have served nationalist leaders in Eastern Europe, data from Russia indicate that autocrats do not necessarily require xenophobic supporters.

Hannah S. Chapman is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in post-Soviet and information politics and comparative political behavior.