Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 116

A poll conducted October 15-18 by the Levada Center, the independent polling agency headed by the eminent sociologist Yuri Levada, delivered a mixed message concerning Russians’ attitudes towards various types of rights and freedoms. The poll’s results suggested, on the one hand, that more Russians have come to value press freedom and the right to elect their government since the Kremlin has moved to abridge those rights. At the same time, the poll showed that Russians by wide margins continue to value social rights, such as state-guaranteed health care and employment, over political rights.

Given a list of various rights and asked which they valued the most, 74% said free education, free medical care, and social security. This was up from 70% in 2002 and 64% in 1994 (the earlier polls were carried out by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM). Fifty-four percent picked the “right to life” (taken from Article 20 of Russia’s constitution, which states, “Everyone shall have the right to life”). This was down from 52% in 2002 and 63% in 1994. Fifty-one percent picked the right to well-paid work in their specialty (2002 — 51%, 1994 — 49%); 45%, the inviolability of private life and dwelling (2002 — 44%, 1994 — 55%); 41%, a state-guaranteed living wage (2002 — 35%, 1994 — 33%); 30%, the right to own property (2002 — 25%, 1994 — 29%); 24%, freedom of speech (2002 — 19%, 1994 — 18%); 17%, the right to receive information (2002 — 12%, 1994 — 8%); 14%, the right to elect representatives to organs of power (2002 — 9%, 1994 — 9%); 13%, freedom of religion (2002 — 13%, 1994 — 14%); and 13%, the right to travel to another country and return (2002 — 13%, 1994 — 11%).

Commenting on this latest poll, the Levada Center said it was noteworthy that in the two years since the previous survey, those human rights that the Russian authorities have restricted during that period or are planning to restrict became more important to the respondents. These include both the various social benefits like free health care and transportation, some of which were recently replaced by cash payments, as well as press freedom and the right to elect officials — the latter clearly a reference to President Vladimir Putin’s recent initiative to appoint the nation’s governors (Levada.ru, October 25).

But perhaps the most striking thing about the Levada Center’s latest poll was the great importance the respondents imputed to such social rights as free education, medical care, and social security and the relative unimportance that they assigned to political rights like the right to elect the country’s governing officials, travel abroad, and worship freely. And while there has been some fluctuation, this gap in the importance that poll respondents assigned to social rights relative to political rights has persisted over the last decade.

Indeed, Presidential Human Rights Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova told Vedomosti that the Levada Center’s polling data concerning the priorities of Russians “absolutely coincides” with the priorities articulated in citizens’ appeals to her commission, which mainly concern reforms in the social sphere. Civil and political rights, she said, are now a secondary concern. Likewise, Yuri Dzhibladze, director of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, told the newspaper that most Russians view civil rights as “abstract” and having no relation to their daily life and thus are ready “to give up on them” (Vedomosti, October 29).

It should also be noted that while the Levada Center poll showed that the number of respondents who value freedom of speech rose by 5% over the 2002 poll, it also found that a plurality of Russians do not believe that the authorities are presently cracking down on the media. Forty-six percent of those polled said the Russian government is “not in the least” threatening free speech or restraining the activities of independent media, while 38% said it is carrying out an attack on free speech and restraining independent media. (Levada.ru, October 28).

There are other indications, however, that the public is ambivalent about restrictions on democratic rights. VTsIOM found in a poll it conducted last month that a plurality of those surveyed — almost half the respondents — opposed President Putin’s plan to make the country’s governors appointed rather than elected officials (see EDM, September 24). On the other hand, a Levada Center poll conducted at the end of September found that in the name of fighting terrorism, the respondents were willing to see the authorities limit the right to travel abroad and move within the country and even ban media that raise doubts about the president’s policy toward terrorism (see EDM, October 6).