Do Russians hunger for Western-style government? Polling suggests most would favour return of Soviet system over liberal democracy

What do the Russians really want? For years, pollsters and pundits have been asking that question. A new survey, which will surprise many, about democracy and public perceptions of the West shows just how elusive the answer is.

For years, Moscow’s Levada Center – officially labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ by the country’s Ministry of Justice over links to overseas funding – has been trying to shed light on how people living in the country think and feel. On Friday, it published its latest research into trust in the political system.

Asked, “What political system do you consider the best?” a mere 16% answered, “democracy according to the model of Western countries.” A slightly higher fraction – 18% – answered “the current system (ie. the Boris Yeltsin/Vladimir Putin model of the past three decades).” But the headline figure was that a whopping 49% said that they preferred “the Soviet system, like we had until the 1990s.”

That’s the largest vote ever recorded in favour of a Soviet-style government, up from the 37% registered the last time this question was asked, back in January 2016.

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Support for the current system is low, but on par with the average registered over the past decade, and up from the single-digit figures recorded when Levada started doing this survey in 1996. By contrast, the number of those hankering for what they perceive as Western-style democracy has declined significantly in the same period, down from around 30% in the late 1990s to its current rate of 18% today.

One explanation for the results could be that it’s a matter of age: older people are nostalgic about their lost youth under communism, while younger folks are more pro-Western and in favour of democracy.

There’s an element of truth to this: according to the Levada poll, only 30% of those aged 18-24 support a return to Soviet rule, compared with 62% of those aged 55 or older. By contrast, 32% of youngsters favour Western democracy, whereas only 9% of their older compatriots do. If you’re a democratically inclined pro-Westerner, you can take solace in that, and imagine that as the younger generation grows up, Russia as a whole will become more like you.

Except, maybe not.

The over 55 crowd, who are so fond of the Soviet Union and so negatively inclined towards the West, are the same people who in their youth, three decades ago, were out on the streets protesting against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and in favour of Boris Yeltsin. Back in December 1993, they happily endorsed Yeltsin’s new constitution, and something like 30% of them cast votes for liberal parties of one sort of another, such as Yegor Gaidar’s Russia Choice, Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko, or Anatoly Sobchak’s Russian Democratic Reform Movement. Nowadays, Russia’s various liberal factions can barely muster 5% between them.

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In other words, many of these Soviet-nostalgic, Western-bashing, democracy haters were once fervent pro-Western liberals themselves. Somewhere along the line, they got mugged by reality. There’s no guarantee that the same won’t happen to today’s youth, who in any case are just as likely to want a Soviet government as a Western democracy.

Overall, what seems to be happening is that Russians as a whole are not overly fond of their system of government, but unlike in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they look at the West they don’t see something worthy of emulation. They, therefore, turn to the only other model they know – the Soviet Union – as a sort of “none of the above” option.

In other words, anti-government sentiment in Russia doesn’t translate into pro-Western feelings, let alone an acceptance of Western models. This can be seen in answers to another question posed by Levada, regarding Russians’ preferred economic system. Only 24% said their ideal is an economy “whose basis is private property and market relations,” whereas 62% said they preferred one “that is founded on state planning and redistribution.”

Again, this is very different from 25 years ago. In 1996, 48% of respondents favoured private property and market relations, and only 29% backed state planning and redistribution. Clearly, free-market liberalism isn’t as popular as it used to be.

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There’s little that pro-Western Russians can salvage from all this. The only possible source of solace is the answers to another question, which asked Russians if they wanted a country that was above all a) “a great power that other countries respect,” or b) “a country with a high standard of living but not one of the strongest countries of the world,” and 66% of people voted for option b), and only 32% for option a). This compared with the situation immediately after the reabsorption of Crimea in March 2014, when Russians were evenly split, with 47% favoring b) and 48% favouring a).

Arguably, this suggests that the patriotic fervor of the so-called "Russian Spring" has faded. Oppositionists who regard that patriotic mood as a vital prop of the current government might view this as an encouraging sign.

They’d also probably be mistaken, though. The March 2014 result was a blip. Otherwise, throughout the entire 25 years that Levada has pursued this survey, a decent standard of living has always won out over great power status. And that’s hardly surprising. It’s what you’d expect from most people, in most places, most of the time.

It’s also a rather silly question, as it presents great power status and a decent standard of living as diametrically opposed. In reality, the richer people are, the more powerful the state is too – and the Norway or Switzerland option is hardly open to Russia. Option a), in other words, isn’t opposed to option b), but arguably dependent on it.

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The way the question is posed perhaps tells us more about the bias of the organization doing the questioning than it does about those answering. In other words, it makes it clear that Levada considers great power status undesirable. But beyond that, it’s not desperately meaningful.

One could say the same about the other questions. Does it make sense, for instance, to ask Russians to choose between Western democracy, their current system of government, or what they had under the Soviets? Given that the third option seems to be impossible, it’s unlikely that anybody is seriously considering it until someone from Levada phones them up and asks them if they want it. The fact that they then give it a thumbs up may not mean very much other than that they dislike the other choices.

If Russians were really wanting to go back to 1980, they’d all be rushing out next week to vote for the Communist Party. They’re not going to. One should be careful, therefore, about taking these polls at face value.

Nevertheless, they do tell us something: Russians aren’t too happy with the system under which they live, but they don’t view systems like those in place in the US and EU as the solution. That finding might shock Western politicians and commentators who think the future – and the will of the people – points only in their preferred direction.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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