Staunton, June 23 – Public support for Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine is broad but not deep and is likely to dissipate quickly rather than become the basis by itself for any new imperial adventures, accordin to Lev Gudkov, the head of the independent Levada Analytic Center.
In the course of a long and wide-ranging interview on Ekho Moskvy, the sociologist and pollster said that the majority of Russians are interested in a quiet life and dealing with their own problems rather than getting involved in the problems of others, even if state propaganda can for a time mobilize them in a different direction.
Until Putin began his propaganda effort, from a third to two-thirds of Russians considered the Maidan in Ukraine as “an internal affair of Ukraine” and said that they fully understood and why Ukrainians should be angry at the corrupt Yanukovych regime and in many cases added that they supported the popular moves against him.
At that time, Levada added, only 29 percent of Russians said that the integration of Ukraine into Europe was “impermissible” or held that such an action was “a betrayal of Slavic brotherhood” or anything similar. All this has changed at least superficially as a result of the Kremlin-orchestrated media campaign.
The Russian pollster said that “this has been an unprecedented campaign in terms of its intensity, tonality and aggressiveness” and that it was possible only because “all alternative sources of information were blocked” including the Internet. As a result, “an enormous part of the [Russian] population remained without alternatives” and followed the official line.
But such dramatic changes in what people tell pollsters they think are seldom long-lasting, Gudkov said, pointing to the rise and fall of support for the Kremlin during and then after the August 2008 war in Georgia. Initially, support for Putin’s policies went through the roof but then fell off as people focused on other issues and problems.
The reason that Putin has been so successful now in ginning up support is that he has used Ukraine as the occasion to “channel” a lot of other kinds of anger by allowing people to compensate for shortcomings in Russian existence by turning to open manifestations of xenophobia and nationalism, two things that may be more difficult to put back in the bottle.
One indication of the relative thinness of support for Putin and his imperial projects is that most Russians view the Eurasian Union as something that has nothing to do with them but is only a plaything for the very top leader. They want to deal with their own affairs. Getting involved abroad is something Russians mostly don’t understand the need for.
Gudkov did point out that Russians who live outside of Russia as in Ukraine typically are “much more strongly oriented toward Russia and the Soviet Union than are those who live in Russia itself.” Moreover, he said, nostalgia for the Soviet past reflects the problems people have now rather than a real commitment.
As far as the annexation of Crimea is concerned, there was much less support for this in Crimea itself than Moscow has claimed. Local pollsters found that 43 percent favored joining Russia and 41 percent were opposed, not the 95 to 5 split that Putin and Russian propagandists regularly claim.
And even that support, Gudkov said, refected “the powerful pressure” exerted by the Russian military and its base there. Elsewhere in Ukraine, there is even less support for linking to Russia.
Moscow’s efforts to play up a supposed NATO threat have not been very effective, Gudkov says, because this is “a phantom” not a reality. But given that nearly half of those who say they are following events acknowledge that “they don’t understand what is happening in Ukraine,” some are inclined to accept whatever Moscow television says.
Asked directly “what the Russian majority wants today,” Gudkov said that “speaking in general, it wants a quiet, well-off, stable, and predictable life” and isn’t interested in pursuing “the destruction of enemies,” despite what official propaganda suggests. Expressed attitudes to the contrary are the product of inertia and propaganda.
They are also the result, the pollster said of growing fears among Russians that if they disagree with the regime, they will suffer. Such worries have “strongly increased over the last two years.” More than a third now fear a return to mass repressions, and many more think they could lose their jobs.
Given that more than two-thirds live “paycheck to paycheck,” that is a real concern, Gudkov said. Moreover, very few Russians have been abroad. Consequently, what they know about it in reality is limited, he added, and they are more prepared than they would otherwise be to accept the regime’s version of reality.
At present, 85 percent of Russians say that they can’t influence the political decisions of their government, the sociologist added. Paternalism remains “very strong,” but Russian society is not what it was, and consequently, more people are thinking independently even if they are not always willing to express it.
Many people are increasingly anger and even in despair, Gudkov suggested. There is evidence of this in social pathologies like suicide. In Moscow, only about eight people per 100,000 kill themselves each year, but in Bashkortostan, that figure is “about 50” and in the Russian Far East it is approaching 80.
Putin’s propaganda effort seeks to channel such anger and despair into xenophobia and hatred, he said. “It exploits such feelings” and allows people to feel that they have some basis for self-respect. But such campaigns do not transform people; they simply distract them from what they see everyday.
And what is in evidence in Russia today is not society itself but a society that has been “artificially” aroused, one in which “deep phobias and mythological ideas” have risen to the surface. “The entire picture is simplified to a serious degree, and this will last until the negative consequences of all this policy begin to tell. That will soon happen,” Gudkov concluded.