Russian Society: A Brake On Reform?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 14

Most observers look at the strong economy and President Putin’s high popularity rating, and assume that Russia has become a “normal” society, in the words of a recent Foreign Affairs article. But a nationwide survey on “Rich and poor in Russia” by the Institute for Complex Social Research, portrays a society that is deeply troubled and far from ready to support Putin’s ambitious reform agenda. (Vladimir Petukhov in Sotsiologicheskie issledovaniya, 31 March 2004.)

The survey, conducted in the spring of 2003, asked respondents to indicate whether they felt life in Russia had got better, stayed the same, or got worse since Putin came to power in 2000. The results were surprisingly grim – surprising, in light of the fact that there has been five years of strong economic growth.

Better Same Worse
General state of economy 34% 37% 12%
Payment of wages, pensions 64 26 6
Effectiveness of state administration 23 36 11
Russia’s international standing 41 25 12
General living standard 21 45 26
Unemployment 19 48 19
General psychological climate 22 36 22
Level of democracy 12 44 14
Crime problem 6 51 32
Situation in Chechnya 19 47 16
State of the army 9 44 29
Work of courts, police 7 43 27
Corruption 7 43 26

Only in two respects was the country’s performance viewed positively – payment of wages on time and Russia’s international standing. In all other respects, those who thought the situation was static or deteriorating outnumbered those who felt there had been progress in Putin’s first term. The number considering themselves losers from reform stood at 47%: up from 42% in the 2000 survey, while the self-identified winners shrank from 13% to 7%. There is a sense that the social fluidity of the chaotic 1990s is now giving way to a more rigid social structure, with fewer chances for advancement.

Maybe this is just sour grapes, a feeling that one’s family has fallen behind in relative terms even though actual conditions have improved. Still, this is a troubling picture for the government, which still has important reform issues on its agenda. Somehow, people have to be persuaded to start paying more for rent and utilities, not to mention healthcare and pensions or taxes and laws. Such reforms will be very difficult to pursue with the current level of public disaffection.

People don’t like the present situation, but they are not confident that change would be for the better. While 53% think change is needed, 46% think it is better to maintain the status quo. Only 40% see the word “reform” in a positive light, while 59% see it as negative. Even the idea of reversing some of the privatizations of the mid-1990s only attracts 50% support.

At least this social alienation means that large-scale social conflict is very unlikely. Society is fragmented and disenchanted with all the political ideologies on offer. The share of respondents who declined to associate themselves with any political ideology rose from to 44% in 2000 to 73% in 2003. As of 2003, 10% identified themselves as communists, 5% social democrats, and 2.7% liberals. Those subscribing to a centrist or mixed view fell from 25% to 8% – despite the fact that Putin himself symbolizes such a philosophy. The good news is that those believing in the need for a “national revival” dropped from 9% to 3.7% (although surveys are typically unreliable in registering extremist views).

The two strongest dimensions of social antagonism are those between rich and poor and Russians and non-Russians, named by 44% and 37% respectively. However, only a quarter actively voiced dislike for the rich, the majority had no strong view on the issue. Likewise with regard to non-Russians (who make up 18% of the population), 54% said Russia should be home to many ethnic groups, and only 15% supported the idea of “Russia for the Russians.”

Some 42% of respondents said they had experienced an infringement of their personal rights, mainly in the provision of health care. 72% of these people did nothing about it. Most of those who did act used individual solutions, such as appealing to friends and connections (11%) or paying a bribe (9%). Only 8% appealed to state or social organizations, 7% went to court, and 2% to their labor union. This shows that despite the prevailing rhetoric of social solidarity and justice, Russians adopt individual not collective responses to social problems. Even if conditions worsen, this pattern of behavior is unlikely to change.

Putin needs to get Russians to take responsibility for the way their society functions. But after the conflict and chaos of the past 15 years, people are in a resigned and defensive state of mind. Judging by this survey, they will not stand in the way of Putin’s reforms, but nor will they help them along.