Statistical Ambivalence

“Democracy” enjoys the support of only 36 percent of Russians according to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s report “Life in Transition: A Survey of People’s Experiences and Attitudes.” Moreover, 40 percent of Russians prefer a planned economy over a market one. These statistics made Kommersant declare that “1/3 of Russians Prefer Authoritarian Rule” and Vedomosti write of a “Planned Satisfaction.”

But why the glass half full assessment? Clearly there is another 64 percent and 60 percent of respondents think otherwise. A clear majority. Yet given these two articles, one would assume that Russian’s are ready to return to the halcyon days of Brezhnev, or one might even dare say, Stalin. But this is not the case.

I think it is important to note that in regard to the 36 percent of Russians favoring “authoritarianism” (whatever that means) is a bit misleading. Respondents were given the following answers for questions about democracy: 1) “For people like me, it does not matter;” 2) “Under some circumstances, an authoritarian government may be preferable to a democratic one;” 3) “Democracy is preferable to any other form of political system.” About 20 percent of responds from the CIS plus Mongolia chose the second answer. But what does “under some circumstances” and “may be preferable” mean? What kind of circumstances? On this the report does say.

While about 55 percent of respondents chose “Democracy is preferable to any other form of political system”, it is interesting almost 30 percent don’t care either way. This means that either they don’t feel the effects of “authoritarianism” or “democracy” on their daily lives, or don’t really see the difference between the two. I think this ambivalence deserves far more investigation.

Respondents’ attitudes toward the market are similar. Again, the survey provided similar answers: 1) “For people like me, it does not matter;” 2) “Under some circumstances, a planned economy may be preferable to a market economy;” 3) “A market economy is preferable to any other form of economic system.” Again, “under some circumstances” isn’t defined. A bit over 40 percent of respondents from the CIS plus Mongolia said that the market economy is preferable. Almost 30 percent chose “under some circumstances” a planned economy may be better. And like with democracy, a good 30 percent didn’t care either way. Again, if Kommersant and Vedomosti would have had headlines like “1/3 of Russians are ambivalent toward democracy, authoritarianism, planned economy, and market economy” a whole different light would have been cast on “Life in Transition.” Namely, that despite what ideologues think at least a third of the population, if not more, will go along and cope with whatever system they’re given.

These statistics break down in interesting ways when you combine authoritarianism and democracy with planned economy and market economy. 19 percent of Russians favored “democracy and market economy”, 12 percent “democracy and planned economy”; 5 percent “authoritarianism and market economy” and 23 percent “authoritarianism and planned economy.” One might immediately point out that the last choice scored higher than the other three. However, it becomes less significant when you see that 21 percent of respondents said that “neither matters” and 20 percent favored “all other combinations”. As to what those “other combinations” are the report doesn’t say. But the point I want to emphasize is that as many people are ambivalent about their political economic system as those who care.

The survey gives other charts that chop these results up further according to age, gender, and income. It is no surprise that the young and wealthy have more positive attitudes toward “democracy” and the “market” than the old and the poor. After all, the lives of the young and the wealthy have had an easier time in the “transition.” Such tends to be the case anywhere.

The survey also records attitudes toward corruption, “trust in society,” and “trust in public institutions.” The vast majority of Russians despite age and income level feel that corruption is about the same as it was before 1989. Trust in society, however, has fallen sharply. Before the collapse of communism, trust in people hovered between 70 and 60 percent. Now its fallen to between 30 and 40 percent. One can include a bit of nostalgia to explain the pre-1989 numbers. But it is important that regardless of age and income most people perceive that people can’t be trusted.

Statistics about how people feel about public institutions are also interesting. Over 50 percent of respondents said that they had “complete plus some trust” in the Presidency, surely a boost for the effort to make Putin a “National Leader.” About 10 percent were ambivalent toward the president and about 30 percent didn’t trust him at all. The public trust hierarchy went as follows: the military (40 percent), the Government (30 percent), the Banks and Financial System (30 percent), the Courts (28 percent), the Parliament (22 percent), the Police (20 percent), and finally Political Parties (13 percent). “Neither trust nor distrust” in all these hovered around 20 percent.

I think the discrepancy in trust in the Presidency and in Political Parties says a lot of what Russians think about politics. Especially in regard to the upcoming Duma elections. But I also think the gap suggests something else: When Russians say that they favor democracy what do they mean exactly? Here, as always, were are left to our own speculation.